26 Jan 2020

Clayton M. Christensen, Kim. B. Clark Professor of Business Administration, Acclaimed Author and Teacher, Dies At 67

Clayton M. Christensen
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

BOSTON, MA—Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School’s Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration, acclaimed author and teacher, and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation, died on January 23, 2020, surrounded by his loving family. Christensen was 67 years old.

Christensen joined the HBS faculty in 1992. He earned a B.A. with highest honors in economics from Brigham Young University (1975); an M.Phil. in applied econometrics from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar (1977); and an MBA with High Distinction (1979) and a DBA (1992) from Harvard Business School. He was granted tenure at the School in 1998 and named to a chaired professorship in 2001.

“Clayton Christensen was one of the world’s greatest scholars on innovation and a remarkable person who had a profound influence on his students and colleagues,” says Dean Nitin Nohria. “His research and writings transformed the way aspiring MBAs, industries, and companies look at management. He was a beloved professor and role model whose brilliant teaching and wisdom inspired generations of students and young academics. Most importantly, Clayton had a passion for helping others be their best selves that permeated every aspect of his life. His loss will be felt deeply by many in our community and his legacy will be long-lasting.”

A gifted teacher across all of Harvard Business School's educational programs, Christensen developed and taught for many years the MBA elective curriculum offering, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, which uses a general manager's lens to evaluate theories about strategy, innovation, and management to predict which tools, strategies, and methods will be most effective. His Online course, Disruptive Strategy, has engaged more than 5,000 learners—more than 10% of Online's cumulative learners to-date. He also led Doctoral seminars, served on a number of doctoral thesis committees, and was a member of the Doctoral Policy Committee. And he was a (highly sought-after) regular in a number of the School's comprehensive leadership and focused Executive Education program offerings. In everything he did, Christensen sought to help his students understand the powerful way they could be a force for good in society and in the lives of others as managers—managers who energized and uplifted those around them.

"Clayton both taught and epitomized Harvard Business School's mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world" said Kim B. Clark, a long-time family friend who served as Harvard Business School Dean from 1995 to 2005 and was Christensen's doctoral advisor. "He was a teacher in the truest sense of the word. He cared deeply about ideas and concepts, and sought to help his students—whether in the classroom or in his writings—to think harder and more creatively, and to act more effectively and powerfully. He had a profound influence on his students primarily, however, because he cared about them. He loved his students and they felt it. All through his life, he sought to help people learn, grow, focus on what really matters and, in turn, influence others for good. He was brilliant and compassionate, an extraordinary colleague, and a dear friend."

“Clayton was unrivaled as a teacher” said Derek van Bever, Director of the Forum for Growth and Innovation at HBS. “Most memorable were those times when a student would make a comment, Clay’s eyebrow would arch and he would point at the student and ask, “What theory are you using to make that statement?” In those moments, you got a sense of the command of the classroom that Clay exercised all those years. What was the theory guiding their comment, and could they defend it on their feet? It was never about demeaning the student, but rather challenging them to think deeply, as leaders must do.”

A distinguished scholar, Christensen was one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years, according to Forbes, and was twice ranked at the top of the Thinkers 50 list among many other awards and accolades. His research and ideas focus on identifying and managing factors that shape the way firms introduce advanced technologies to existing and prospective markets, and the process by which innovation transforms—or displaces—companies or entire industries. He first introduced the notion of “disruptive innovation” in his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. It became a New York Times bestseller and received the Global Business Book Award for the best business book published in 1997. More than two decades later, business leaders from around the world continue to credit Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation for their ability to innovate, grow, and compete in today’s global economy.

“Clayton was one of very few business academics who truly changed practice” said Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard. “Disruptive Innovation is now firmly in the managerial lexicon, and I suspect business people will be using it—and thinking about it—long after we are all dust. He had an ability that in my experience is relatively rare in academia: he combined leading edge thinking with the energy and drive necessary to take his ideas to practice. He was also, as everyone who ever met him can attest, one of the world’s great human beings. I will miss him more than I can say.”

In Christensen’s 2003 book, The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, Christensen summarizes a set of theories that can guide managers trying to grow new businesses with predictable success. Drawing on years of in-depth research, the book shows that innovation is not as unpredictable as most managers have come to believe, and teaches managers how to think about the issues that limit—and provide—growth in organizations.

In Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change, published in 2004, Christensen presents a framework for predicting outcomes in the evolution of any industry. Based on theories outlined in The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, he offers a practical model that helps decision-makers spot the signals of industry change, determine the outcome of competitive battles, and assess whether a firm’s actions will ensure or threaten future success.

More recently, Christensen focused his innovation lens on two of the country’s most vexing social issues: education and health care. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), named one of the best books on innovation that year by Businessweek, looks at the root causes of why U.S. public school struggle, and offers a blueprint for how technology can be effectively applied to the classroom. The Innovator's Prescription (2009) examines how to fix our healthcare system, a personal topic for Christensen, who had long had diabetes, but then in his fifties suffered a heart attack, cancer, and stroke.

In 2011, Christensen published two books: The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

Throughout his life, Clayton was candid about the health struggles he faced, and the talk he gave to the MBA Class of 2010—later captured as a wildly popular article in Harvard Business Review and in book form as How Will You Measure Your Life?—epitomized the thought with which he approached every challenge and his innate love of teaching. The Harvard Business Review article of the same name won the McKinsey Award for best article of year.

Although Christensen’s legacy will live on through his groundbreaking theories, best-selling books, and the countless generations of students, scholars, and executives he taught and mentored, he will also be remembered for his generosity, kindness, and the individual people whose lives he has touched, most especially his family.

“What many people don’t realize is that being an academic was really my father’s third career;” said Matt Christensen, one of Christensen's five children. “After being a strategy consultant and then a startup CEO, my dad went back to school and got his doctorate, finishing that at about the same time that I finished high school. As a result, seeing his research come together over the last quarter century is a relatively recent memory for me. And yet, while his professional life has gone through fascinating iterations and developments, what hasn’t changed is that he has constantly been the best father and husband anybody could hope to have.”

Christensen was committed to both community and church. In addition to a stint as a White House Fellow, he was an elected member of the Belmont Town Council for eight years, and served the Boy Scouts of America for 25 years as a scoutmaster, cub master, den leader, and troop and pack committee chairman. He also served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Republic of Korea from 1971 to 1973, spoke fluent Korean, and was a leader in his church.

He is survived by his loving wife Christine; five children—Matthew, Ann, Michael, Spencer, and Catherine (Kate); and nine grandchildren.

Visitation Hours and Funeral
A viewing will be held from 6:00 - 9:00 p.m. on Friday, January 31, at the Belmont Chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 15 Ledgewood Place, Belmont, Massachusetts. On Saturday, February 1, a viewing will held from 9:30 - 10:30am followed by the funeral at 11:00 a.m. at the Cambridge Chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 65 Binney Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After careful consideration and in accordance with the new Harvard University guidelines for events and meetings on campus due to COVID-19, the memorial service for our friend and colleague, Clayton Christensen, on Friday, March 13th will not be held. The family and school are deeply touched by the outpouring of support during this difficult time. We would like to encourage you to continue sharing memories of Clayton at memoriesofclay.com. Thank you for your understanding and we will keep you informed on any details as they become available to celebrate Clayton's life.

Donations may be made in Clayton's honor to:

More articles regarding the life of Clayton M. Christensen:

The New York Times

Harvard Business Review

Deseret News

Boston Globe


Salt Lake Tribune

The Wall Street Journal

Poets and Quants

Financial Times


Brian Kenny

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.