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Clayton Christensen: Focusing on a job to be done

The Harvard business professor and author of “How Will You Measure Your Life?” says that leaders should focus on their institution’s mission in order to foresee and compete against disruptive innovations.

January 15, 2013

The process of replacing existing products, policies or cultures with emerging technologies or new systems of thought can be difficult for any business or organization.

However, institutional leaders can respond to such “disruptive innovations” if they stay focused on their organization’s core task, says author and Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen.

“If we define our mission by the job to be done, and we’re trying to provide our leadership or membership with the best way to get that job done, we can see new technologies coming down the pike,” Christensen said.

Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and is one of the most influential thinkers in business. He is the author of several books, including “The Innovator’s Dilemma”; “The Innovative University,” with co-author Henry J. Eyring; and, most recently, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

He created the term “disruptive innovation” to describe the process by which new products or systems compete for the lower end of a market, then compete successfully with established businesses by improving in quality.

Examples include personal computers, which displaced mainframes, and cellular phones, which are overtaking landlines. Christensen believes that online learning is posing a disruptive challenge to traditional institutions of higher education.

Christensen is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and often speaks of the influence of the institutional church in his life and work. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Brigham Young University and an M.Phil. in applied econometrics from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes scholar. He also earned an MBA and a DBA from the Harvard Business School.

Christensen spoke with Faith & Leadership about his theories on disruptive innovation and its impact on organizations and institutions. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What has accelerated the pace of disruption in innovation, and do you think this is likely to continue?

I’m not sure that it’s accelerating. We’re just more aware of it happening now. The degree and the pace of disruption are happening industry by industry, so people gradually become aware of it going on.

Q: How important is the clarity of purpose or mission for an organization, and how does it affect the ways in which disruptive innovation is engaged?

The language that I used for my research is focusing on a job to be done. It’s really important to focus on the purpose or the job that you’re trying to do, because then you can keep looking down the road and figuring out whether there’s another and a better way to get this done.

For example, Julius Caesar had a job to do, which was getting things from here to there with perfect certainty as fast as possible. When he had that job to do, the best way to do it was to hire a horseman and a chariot. But then, we figured out, you could deliver it by sailboat, or you could deliver it by railroad, and then automobile, and now it’s FedEx.

If at any point a company had defined itself as in the railroad business or the car business, they wouldn’t have seen the next thing coming and, all of a sudden, would have found themselves out of business.

So while the technology available to get the job done has changed quite dramatically over time, the job itself has been unchanged. And that’s generally true, if you really understand the jobs that people need done in their lives. They are very stable.

Q: When you are in an organization or institution facing disruption, what are the guiding principles to preserve your tradition while also pursuing innovation?

It’s hard to say that there’s a standard formula for this, but as a general rule, you need to begin adopting the new technology before the old one is obsolete. If you just imagine that on Monday you’re going to adopt the new and jettison the old, you typically will cause the whole company to go under.

So usually what that means is you need to set up a separate business unit to pursue the new and cultivate it and build it so that it’s capable, and then little by little transition from the old into the new. But you have to do things in parallel for quite a while.

Q: Are there any particular recommendations or challenges for culture-forming organizations, such as higher education and religious institutions?

The answers are the same. The way a culture is created is that a group of people were confronted with a task they had to address early on in the organization’s history. If they succeeded and the task recurs, they’re likely to say, “Gosh, it worked this way last time; let’s do it the same way.” And so on.

The more frequently and successfully you adopt a way of working together to get a recurring task done, the more instinctively you will follow it in the same way. And then there comes a point where the task recurs and nobody even thinks about whether it should be done another way.

When people adopt a process or a way of getting things done that is used so frequently that it’s now instinctive, that’s what a culture is. If you want to change a culture, you can’t send out a memo saying, “We want to have a different culture starting on Monday.”

You have to go all the way to the beginning, to the recurring task that initiated the development of a process that then became part of the culture. Then you have to bring other people together and say, “Here’s another task.”

As people figure out a way to address it successfully and frequently, a new process and a new culture emerges. But you almost always have to do that in a different group, because in the original group, as long as that original task keeps recurring, it’s almost impossible to change the culture that was the result of that recurrent task.

Q: You’ve written about higher education, which is facing disruption now with the growth of online offerings. What do you think of massive open online courses (MOOCs), especially those offered by elite universities?

Our research suggests that, especially for the standard general education requirements that most people do in their freshman and sophomore years, the massive courses probably will become the way it’s done. Whoever owns that game will probably make most of the industry’s money.

But as you move toward the finish line, what I expect to develop is a facilitated network, where professors at all kinds of schools will put together tutorials that augment traditional learning. Then people will put them together as modules and then as courses that are custom-configured to individual customers’ or students’ needs.

Q: Would this be an online-only network, or are you imagining a mix of in-person and online?

My guess is that doing it online is a much easier and more effective way to build this network. So professors will just do a little tutorial and you stick it online, or a student will develop a tutorial for other friends who are struggling with a concept and put that online. And because the users are the ones that develop the content and share it with each other, online is actually a better way to do it.

Q: Do you imagine a day when students wouldn’t walk into a classroom at all?

There will be a hybrid model for a while, as a general rule. But over time, if my research in disruption applies, you’ll find online technology taking over a lot of what today we feel has to be done in person. And online technology will be so good that, piece by piece, it will take almost all of it.

What they won’t be able to do is what a few professors take upon themselves to do: truly personally transform their students into becoming better people on a one-by-one basis.

At a typical school, maybe 5 percent of the faculty members really see their job as transforming the lives of their students. The other 95 percent feel like they’re there to research and publish, and they’re not engaged in their students’ lives at all.

To the extent that a college is dominated by these people who really don’t care to focus their energies on helping their students become better people, the online equivalents are going to take over. It will be just the few who became academics because they wanted to change the lives of the students that would be very hard for online options to replace.

Q: Would there still be an opportunity for those professors to come in contact with students?

That’s a great question. Universities assert that the online experience can’t provide the on-campus experience. Look at what goes on on-campus at universities around the country, including places like Harvard and Duke. Our two oldest children went to Duke. On-campus culture is facilitated by Budweiser, and the faculty and administrators really spend very little time trying to guide or create a really high-quality on-campus experience. That would be something different from what most universities, including Duke, have now.

Q: Are you saying that what universities argue they provide is not something they actually provide to such a degree that they could be replaced or disrupted by an online alternative?

That’s right. When I made a presentation about my research to the trustees at Bowdoin [College] up in Maine -- a lovely school -- I was sitting next to the president at dinner, and he discreetly pointed to a member of the trustees board and said, “She and her husband just gave us [a large donation]. Her link with Bowdoin isn’t some novel that she read or a course that she took, but there was an English literature professor that changed her life.”

Then he went around the room one by one, and every one of them had a link to a deep relationship with an individual professor that changed their lives.

At the Harvard Business School, when the alumni come back for reunions and you listen to them talk amongst themselves about how Harvard Business School changed their lives, always it’s attributed to a specific professor.

There are about 12 members of our faculty over the last 50 years who accounted for almost all the activity of changing individual people’s lives. A very small proportion carry a massive weight.

And what’s scary about it is that changing people’s lives is something that the online alternative has a hard time doing. But what that says about the faculty is, if they want to survive and thrive, they really need to change the way they think about their profession.

Q: How do you create the culture in which those kinds of relationships can flourish, to develop a sense of vocation on the part of religious folk or students or whatever your clientele is?

I don’t know. I’ve never been in the middle of it. But I would assert that a place where it’s working is at BYU-Idaho, a Mormon college. They are really moving the delivery of content online and focusing the faculty more and more on making sure that the spiritual part of the students’ lives is being attended to.

At Harvard, when we interview younger people to join as assistant professors, never does the question even come up. We just look at whether they are good at publishing their research, and we might think about whether they are good teachers. But the topic of being in the business of changing people’s lives doesn’t ever come up.

Q: And you think it’s important?

It’s the only thing that online learning can’t emulate.