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Revisiting disruption: 8 good questions with Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the world on innovation and disruption. The Economist magazine called his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” one of the six most important books about business ever written. The Kim B. Clark professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Christensen is the father of such concepts as Disruptive Innovation, Jobs To Be Done, Integration vs. Modularity and Tools of Cooperation, ideas that have made him one of the most sought after voices about the future of business.

Christensen’s involvement with media and publishing includes his work with the American Press Institute back in 2006 on Newspaper Next, a strategy roadmap for the newspaper industry to adapt to the digital disruption. His most recent foray into journalism includes a report on mastering disruptive innovation in journalism for Nieman Reports.

I caught up with Christensen to ask him his thoughts about new investors in news such as Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar, technologies such as mobile, whether the “job to be done” for news has changed, and his thoughts on why publishers struggled with his Newspaper Next project.

Clayton ChristensenYour work in media initially focused on a time when the industry was disrupted but newer players such as BuzzFeed and others hadn’t fully formed yet. Now they’ve become the mature players in this landscape. What could new news investors such as Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar bring to journalism from their backgrounds?

CLAYTON CHRISTENSEN: These guys are very smart people and they have done remarkable things. In particular, Jeff Bezos has launched, by my count, three independent disruptive businesses, all under the umbrella of Amazon and to date, has been very successful in all three. I truly think you can count on one hand how many people have accomplished what he’s accomplished.

So I think that in Bezos’ favor, he’s wrestled with these kinds of problems before, but I don’t think for him or for Pierre that there’s anything about the specifics of their prior experiences that is transformable as an answer. What they can bring are questions, but their backgrounds don’t bring them answers.

What do you make of the new digital startups now, such as Circa or BuzzFeed, that have brought different approaches to publishing? Which are the most promising or interesting to you?

CHRISTENSEN: The right question to ask is are the jobs these guys are trying to get done arise only in the life of people who are in the business of news, or do these jobs arise in the life of plain old ordinary people like me?

A job that occurs in my life is that I’m always invited to give a talk somewhere and before or after the talk, there’s 30 minutes of mingling and introducing people. Everybody thinks that Clay Christensen is smart and he has an opinion about this and that and I don’t have the time to become an expert in all of these fields. I want them to believe that I’m smart and that I’m well-informed, even though I’m not. And that’s actually a job that arises in a lot of people’s minds. That is, they’re too busy and yet they want to appear to everybody else as being current and knowledgeable. When I use the phrase “job to be done,” that’s truly a great definition of a job to be done.

The last time you spoke at length about this, a few years ago, we were just on the brink of what you call “going off the edge” with the Huffington Post reaching a point of maturity. Where do you think we are in this arc of change now?

CHRISTENSEN: It’s completely predictable, isn’t it? The disruption begins at the fringe, at the low end. Huffington is one case, and repeating what other people have said, so was Bloomberg when it started out. They just made data that the Fed already was making available and provided the data free and made it a little bit easier to use. But then you can predict that you can move up market into product and services that are higher in quality and that offer more attractive gross margins.

And so you can predict that Huffington Post will pursue that in the pursuit of profit and then you can predict that people will begin underneath them, making something that is simpler and has the potential to then themselves move up. So I think what you’re seeing is that this is just moved over five years, you live what the theory says that you will live.

I haven’t seen anybody in the media business integrate in that way, but there’s an insight there that would be worth trying to understand and apply.

The thing that makes it a little more complicated is that, if somebody really nails the job to be done, then it appears that those entities are harder to dislodge. It’s easy to disrupt a product with a disruptive product. But if you can integrate all of the experiences, purchase and use what the customer needs in order to do the job perfectly that they need done — it’s actually quite hard for people to disrupt that. I haven’t seen anybody in the media business integrate in that way. But I think there’s an insight there that would be worth trying to understand and apply.

So I can’t predict with perfect certainty that disruption will always occur to everybody because I think there is a way to counter that by positioning on a job to be done and integrating it to do it perfectly.

I’m curious, do you think anyone comes close to this yet?

CHRISTENSEN: Not in your industry, that I know of. But Ikea is a perfect example. They’ve been rolling their model around the world for 40 years and they have no competitors. The business model just occurred in our son’s life last summer when he went out to Stanford to do his PhD. A couple days after he arrived, he called us up and said, “Mom and Dad, I found my apartment. I need to furnish my apartment tomorrow.” And when that job arises, the word Ikea pops up into your mind and when you go there, they’ve integrated in a different way than any other furniture store to nail that job perfectly.

And it’s not that they have any secrets. Anyone can copy the products that they sell, it’s the integration focused around that job to be done. Around the world, if you pose there’s the job, everybody says yeah, that is a job and if there’s a company that does the job well, uniformly, people say Ikea. So they’ve not been disrupted. And they’re wildly profitable.

Disney used to be that until they got taken over. They had no competitors in the theme park business. But they’ve lost their sense of a job.

What do you think is the core job to be done in news? Is it that one you mentioned earlier — where you are pressed on time and want to appear more knowledgeable without expending more time? Are there others?

In most businesses, there will be 3 to 5 jobs to be done — there are never 10 and there is never just one.

CHRISTENSEN: No, in most businesses, there will be 3-5 jobs to be done. So there are never 10 and there is never just one. Typically there will be 3-5. So, [helping people appear knowledgeable in social settings] that’s one of the jobs that exists. Occasionally I find myself needing to get that job done and then I ask myself, geez what can I engage in or hire to do that job. There’s another job to be done, which is I’m standing here in this line or I’m on this subway or I’m waiting for an appointment and I have somewhere between 1 minute and 20 minutes of just time and I want to fill it up with something. So what can I hire to do that job?

So you can hire a newspaper to do that job. It does the job kind of well, but not really because it’s very bulky — well, it used to be bulky. And it’s got a lot of inserts that fall all over the floor, but I could buy a feed that allows me to productively spend 3 minutes — that’s another job to be done. In 3 minutes, I can’t read the Economist to do that job because the articles are all too long. But there’s a different job: I really enjoy being informed. So I would hire The Economist for that job.

There’s been a lot of talk about mobile technology and how news companies might be already behind technology companies. How does mobile technology play into this notion of products that should aim to complete consumers’ jobs to be done?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, almost never is the technology itself intrinsically sustaining or disruptive. Rather, the technology can be deployed in the market in a sustaining or a disruptive way. If you want to go after somebody who normally reads the Economist because the job to be done is that they truly enjoy diving deeply into a topic, then you give me my mobile smartphone and it just isn’t as good in doing that particular as the Economist [in magazine form].

On the other hand, if I just need to fill 3 minutes with productive activity, then quick feeds, one after another after another, over a smartphone, is truly disruptive because it does the job better than other things that are available. That job arises typically when you can’t quite predict, ‘Am I going to go into this meeting in 1 minute or 3 minutes?’ So one of the experiences has to be that I can truncate what I’m doing at any point without wasting the time I’ve spent already.

You just have to keep remembering that whether the technology will transform the industry disruptively or not depends on what the job is.

You just have to keep remembering that whether the technology will transform the industry disruptively or not depends on what the job is. Is there a job out there for which this is a better solution than what is available to date? If so, you’ve got to have those solutions, too. So, whether people pick up this technology depends on whether there’s a job out there and the technology does this job well.

And then there’s a completely different question: alright, so there’s a job out there, and there’s a startup that has a product that does the job very well. The new question is, can I predict that the established players will go after this thing? Or can I predict that they won’t? And that’s what the question of disruption entails.

And so the little 15-second feeds of what’s going on today to my mobile device, there’s a job out there that sounds like this company is doing it quite well, but can I predict that the New York Times will go after this? Probably not. Because it doesn’t fit the business model of the New York Times. You can predict that people will not go after something they can’t make money off of.

What did you think of the industry’s reception of the ambitious Newspaper Next project that you worked on with the American Press Institute back in 2006? Today, would you prescribe different things or in different ways?

The report [Newspaper Next] was consumed at the level of the brain and not the heart.

CHRISTENSEN: My sense of the Newspaper Next project is that people read it as an interesting, academic exercise but somehow, whether it was our fault or theirs, the report was consumed at the level of the brain and not the heart.

Most newspapers decided that might happen to others but it doesn’t happen to us. And on a day-to-day basis, you don’t feel it until it’s over. And now there are a lot of people who are saying oh my gosh this really is happening in many ways. The degrees of freedom that are available are far more limited now than they were.

What do you think the barrier was to newspapers having these lessons spill into their hearts as you say and their day-to-day?

CHRISTENSEN: The answer is, I don’t know. I know the phenomena — I don’t know how to resolve it. And the phenomena is, when you see the result of a theory, somehow our instinct is to say it doesn’t apply to me or it won’t happen tomorrow.

A good way that I’ve began to teach my classes about what is a theory is that in front of the room, I’ll have a pen in my hand and I let it go and it falls on the floor. And as I stoop over to pick it up, I grouse to the students, you know what, I just hate gravity. But gravity doesn’t care. It always pulls you down. And that’s what you really need to do in order to respond to disruption. You need to say, you know, these guys are coming at me from below and I might hate disruption but disruption doesn’t care it will always happen to you.

If you think gravity works on everybody, but in your circumstance, it won’t pull you down… that’s the challenge.

You know, back then, you look at the Washington Post and Alan Spoon who was their CEO at the time read the Innovator’s Dilemma and said, oh this actually is going to happen to us and he took action and for awhile, which was very successful and now those things are being disrupted, too. But disruption doesn’t care, it will always come at you. It allows you to take action. But if you think gravity works on everybody, but in your circumstance, it won’t pull you down… well, that’s the challenge.

  • http://peopleforbikes.org/ Michael Andersen

    I participated in Newspaper Next in my first year at a suburban daily, the third year of my reporting career. It didn’t change a damn thing about my newspaper because the editors either didn’t understand it or weren’t interested in following its implications. For me, though, it was one of the most important educational experiences of my professional life.

    At first I was angry. Then I was depressed. Eventually I became inspired. Two years later, I quit my job to create a news startup, which has since merged with another. Now I’m doing more interesting and rewarding work, learning faster, meeting more and smarter people, making more money and couldn’t be happier with the course of my career and my impact on my community.

    Thanks, Clay.

  • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

    “…whether it was our fault or theirs, the report was consumed at the level of the brain and not the heart.”

    I’d like to think I consumed it at its heart. That’s why I no longer work for a newspaper company and own my own news start up.

    I actually delved deep into Clayton’s work years before Newspaper Next.

    NN was flawed because it was trying to create a climate of disruption inside one of the most hindbound industries in America. It had no hope of success from the get-go.

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