CNBC Disruptor 50

Silicon Valley remembers Clayton Christensen, 'godfather of disruptive innovation'

Key Points
  • Harvard professor and businessman Clayton Christensen died last Thursday at the age of 67.
  • In 1995, Christensen introduced "disruptive innovation" in the Harvard Business Review.
  • Two years later he published "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail," a book that deeply influenced Silicon Valley thinking and leaders including Steve Jobs and Reed Hastings. 
Clayton M. Christensen
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Harvard Business School professor and businessman Clayton Christensen, known by many as the "godfather" of disruptive innovation, died last Thursday at the age of 67. His brother Carlton confirmed to the Desert News that Christensen died of complications from ongoing treatment for lymphoma.

In 1995, Christensen introduced the concept of "disruptive innovation" in the Harvard Business Review, but it wasn't until two years later that he published "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail."

That book's thesis influenced the entire direction of thinking in Silicon Valley and for powerhouses like Netflix and its co-founder Reed Hastings, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. According to Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, published just weeks after Jobs's death in October 2011, Christensen's book "deeply influenced" the Apple icon.

Soon after Innovator's Dilemma was published, former Intel CEO Andy Grove stood up on stage with a copy of the book at COMDEX, a computer expo trade show, declaring it "the most important book he'd read in a decade." Grove's endorsement put Christensen on the map, landing them both on the cover of Forbes in 1999.

"Clay was hugely influential on me as CEO," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told the Desert News. "I owe much of our success to his writings."

"Reed brought 25 or 30 of us together, and we discussed the book," Neil Rothstein, who worked at Netflix from 2001 to 2012 and eventually ran digital global advertising for the company, told CNBC in 2018 referring to Innovator's Dilemma. "We studied AOL and Blockbuster as cautionary tales. We knew we had to disrupt, including disrupting ourselves, or someone else would do it."

Another prominent endorsement of his work as "part of the zeitgeist" of the disruptive tech era: CNBC's own Disruptor 50 list.

Silicon Valley mourned the death of the management scholar, with everyone from founders and CEOs to legendary investors expressing grief and condolences on social media.

Veteran venture capitalist Marc Andreessen reacted on Twitter, calling Dr. Christensen a "giant of enterprise," in his attribution of a quote from "How Will You Measure Your Life?" — another famed publication of Christensen's.

Box founder and CEO Aaron Levie referred to "The Innovator's Dilemma" as the "best explanation of business, strategy, and markets out there."

Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng called Christensen a "brilliant mind and a wonderful person," while also crediting him for his influence on today's most prominent tech companies.

Christensen remarked in a 2012 TEDx talk, "When I have my interview with God at the end of my life, he's not going to ask me to show how high I went in anybody's org chart or how much money I left behind in the bank when I died. It's actually really important you succeed at what you're succeeding at, but that isn't going to be the measure of life."

Dr. Christensen was born in Salt Lake City and received a bachelor's degree in economics from Brigham Young University in 1975. Two years later, he received his master's in applied econometrics as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. Christensen is survived by his wife Christine and five children, Matthew, Michael, Spencer, Ann and Catherine Christensen.