Clayton Christensen, creator of ‘disruptive innovation’ theory and prominent LDS leader, dies at 67

(Courtesy photo) Clayton Christensen.

Clayton M. Christensen, a prominent Utah-born business theorist and consultant, devout Latter-day Saint and framer of the influential concept of “disruptive innovation,” died Thursday.

He was 67.

Christensen succumbed to complications from treatments for leukemia he had been receiving in the Boston area, where he and his family have long made their home, according to his brother, Carlton Christensen.

Trained at Brigham Young University, Oxford University and Harvard Business School, the native of Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood first coined the idea of disruptive innovation in a 1995 Harvard Business Review paper co-written with Harvard professor Joseph Bower.

The concept, further distilled in Christensen’s 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and subsequent works might appear simple now: that new, cheaper and seemingly inferior ideas in business and technology have potential to create entirely new markets that revolutionize and overturn the status quo.

But Christensen’s clear and accessible scholarship on the theory over two decades, rooted in research on real-world examples, is said to have helped make disruptive innovation among the most influential business concepts of the early 21st century.

“Clay had the ability to not only identify these new ideas but to articulate and teach them and write about them in ways that sparked hope and innovation and creative energy in others,” said Clark Gilbert, a Christensen protégé at Harvard and former CEO of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

Today, leaders at such Silicon Valley giants as Apple, Intel and Netflix as well as those in education and the nonprofit world commonly credit Christensen’s influence in igniting some of their best ideas, Gilbert said.

“Most of the growth of our economy comes not from preserving old models but from creating new ones,” he said. “And you can make a very good argument that a big percent of new company creation, new industry formation, stock market valuation and job creation actually comes from disruptive innovation.”

Many noted that Christensen’s primary theory was later misapplied to any and all kinds of innovation, but even in its true form, the notion also had its critics. A 2014 New Yorker magazine article called it “a theory of change founded in panic, anxiety and shaky evidence.”

The concept nonetheless is used today around the world, particularly with regard to entrepreneurs, startups and new technologies. Christensen’s influence, though, reached past business and into the worlds of education and faith.

Gilbert, now president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, focused on online learning, was among many friends and family members who also praised him as kind, thoughtful, generous and an inspiring role model.

TV journalist Jane Clayson Johnson knew Christensen as a fellow Latter-day Saint in Boston, where he and Johnson’s husband, Mark, started a business-consulting firm together called Innosight two decades ago.

Johnson said Christensen also introduced Mark to tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and baptized him into the Utah-based faith in 2000. The author and Harvard professor’s legacy, Johnson said, “goes well beyond the books he wrote and the speeches he gave.

“There were countless small moments he shared with thousands of people in which he showed boundless grace,” she said. “… He saw the good in anyone and brought out the best in everyone.”

Johnson called him “absolutely one of a kind, in intellect, humility, compassion and depth of faith.”

Longtime friend David Cook, a Latter-day Saint attorney in Rochester, N.Y., said, “above all, Clayton was humble.”

Christensen walked “with the titans of industry, among the highest councils of the church, and in the halls of the greatest academic institutions on the planet,” Cook said. “Yet, in his mind, he was still a kid from West High, a frightened greenie missionary in Korea, and a seeker for truth. The lines in his mind between intellectual and spiritual truth seemed faint.”

His brother, Carlton, said that while a recent bout of leukemia took his life, Christensen had battled through years of health problems, including a heart attack, a stroke and earlier incident of cancer.

“He just didn’t give up and kept moving forward,” said his brother. “He just had great strength that I’ll always admire.”

Benjamin Park, a Latter-day Saint who teaches history at Sam Houston State University in Texas, pointed to what he said was Christensen’s outsized influence within LDS Church.

“Clayton Christensen will be seen as one of the most influential thinkers in modern Mormonism, especially in the education sector,” Park wrote in an email. “His focus on streamlining education has encouraged LDS university administration to prioritize student interaction, restructure degree programs to more closely align modern business models, and deemphasize research and publications that appear peripheral to classroom aims."

Having served as a Latter-day Saint bishop, stake president and area seventy in Boston, the Harvard professor also helped develop the church’s manual for missionaries, “Preach My Gospel,” Cook said, “but didn’t see it or anything else as static."

“Everything could be improved upon,” Cook said. “His paradigm of disruption seemed to really come from the idea of pushing the boundaries until inspiration filled in the gaps.”

Christensen was born April 6, 1952, in Rose Park, the second of eight children. At 6-foot-8, he was an avid basketball player and served as a church missionary in South Korea, where he learned to speak Korean fluently. He earned an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1979.

Christensen worked as a consultant in Boston and as an assistant to the U.S secretary of transportation and founded a successful ceramics company before returning to Harvard for a doctorate in business administration in 1992. Christensen then joined the faculty at the Harvard Business School and became a full professor six years later.

He wrote 10 books and numerous articles on business, education and faith; his more popular nonbusiness titles include “The Power of Everyday Missionaries” and “How Will You Measure Your Life?

In addition to Innosight, the consulting and training firm, Christensen founded two venture capital funds, Innosight Ventures and Rose Park Advisors, the latter named for the neighborhood where he grew up.

Christensen lived in Belmont, Mass., with his wife, Christine. They have five children, Matthew, Ann, Michael, Spencer and Catherine.

Funeral arrangements were still being finalized Thursday and would be announced shortly, his brother said.