In this new age wrought by the devastation of COVID-19, what used to work will likely not work anymore. And even if it does still work, there may be fewer people willing to pay for it. The mandate for many is clear: Innovate or die. 

Clayton Christensen

If only Clayton Christensen, the godfather of disruptive innovation, were here to see it. Surely, he would see this tumultuous time as one of dazzling possibilities and hopeful renewal while at the same time stoically acknowledging the devastating toll of human suffering being taken around the world. 


In his seminal classic “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen argued that technological advancements can create cheaper, faster, and overall better substitutes for existing products, and in turn create industry growth. If necessity is the mother of invention, the time for his ideas are now. 


Christensen posited three types of innovation:

  • SUSTAINING innovations refer to incremental improvements on a continual basis. Toyota’s “Kaizen” commitment to subtle constant improvement would be an example. Basically, we’re talking about the minor tweaks necessary to stay competitive and nothing that could generate a big win or a big loss. It’s a noble path tread by unknown heroes. 

  • DISRUPTIVE innovations are cheaper inferior substitutes that appeal to a much broader set of customers (higher volume with lower margins). An ATM is a perfect example. For the consumer, you don’t get that over-the-counter friendly customer service but your bank fees could be lower and the machines are easier to access. Meanwhile, the bank grows its base via middle-class conveniences. --Disruptive technologies usually emerge on the edges in insignificant markets. Typically, they aren't relevant for a leading firm's best and most profitable clients. This encourages innovation from upstarts who haven't been lulled into complacency serving lumbering giants.

  • BREAKTHROUGH innovations break business models. They disturb incumbents and delight customers. Remember when email rolled out and on the US postal service tried to tax it? There wasn’t much they could do. Actually, there probably was but there isn’t much creative energy at the post office.  (Except for in 1977, when one USPS visionary launched an early form of email which failed due to bureaucratic interference. Despondent, he left and went on to start a company that would eventually be sold to UPS for $100 million.) Read about at Bloomberg "The Post Office Almost Delivered Your First E-Mail" 

So which are you? 

  • The businesses mildly impacted such as grocery stores can likely muddle through by keeping up. (sustaining)

  • The businesses hard hit may be threatened by novel approaches. For instance, commercial real estate landlords facing the suddenly the threat of immensely relevant virtual office. (the disrupted versus disruptive) 

  • The businesses created in this environment or supported by it, such as new medical delivery models or education systems, have the potential to help make a better world. (breakthrough)

If you are interested in learning more about Clayton Christensen, Harvard has a collection of his best essays available online here

You can also get his book. In researching this article, I became most interested in his philosophy of life and downloaded his book "How Will You Measure Your Life" on Audible. Based on the excerpts I read, it should be a good quarantine listen.

This watershed moment in history brings to mind my favorite quote from Eric Hoffer, a San Francisco longshoreman and self-taught philosopher:

“In times of great change, learners shall inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." 


Good luck out there.