Kara Swisher: Christensen’s bracing ideas about management are just what tech needs now

(Courtesy photo) Clayton Christensen.

It’s nothing but noise, all the time. We get hammered every second from an incessant sousaphone of tweets and from the righteous rage machine that screams at us in this digitized 24/7/365 communications world that we have built.

What you might not know is that we have long had a name for what started this all: “disruptive innovation.” The concept was pioneered by Clay Christensen, a high-profile and well-regarded Harvard professor of management who died of cancer last week at 67. Professor Christensen’s remarkable legacy grew out of a seminal book he published in 1997, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

The book covered esoteric industries like the disk drives market and excavating to analyze and illustrate the power of disruptive technologies. His ideas exploded through the then-nascent internet scene and throughout Silicon Valley. I recall reading an early copy and thinking that it was a manifesto that the tech world would embrace — and that Professor Christensen was tech’s prophet.

The Intel founder and chief executive Andy Grove was a fan. So was the Apple legend Steve Jobs. Both men were doubtlessly attracted to the idea that start-ups made up of outsiders could find ways to create new markets and new value — and disrupt and overwhelm established companies.

In the face of disruption, older companies could do almost nothing. It wasn’t that they couldn’t see the new threats of start-ups, but that they were stuck on serving their current businesses, and they failed to change their products and services out of fear of cutting into profits.

Professor Christensen’s formula was elegant: “First, disruptive products are simpler and cheaper; they generally promise lower margins, not greater profits. Second, disruptive technologies typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets. And third, leading firms’ most profitable customers generally don’t want, and indeed initially can’t use, products based on disruptive technologies.”

It was that simple. Professor Christensen’s book came out a year before Google was founded, seven years before Facebook, eight years before YouTube and 11 years before Uber. Each of these companies, knowingly or unknowingly, would follow his map.

While Professor Christensen would go on to write a sequel and many more books on adjacent topics ripe for disruption, like education (“Disrupting Class” in 2008) and health care (“Innovator’s Prescription” in 2009), it was his initial idea that was devastatingly insightful.

I use the term devastate because, though no fault of Professor Christensen’s, disruptive innovation took a turn for the worse in tech. Silicon Valley failed to marry disruption with a concept of corporate responsibility, and growth at all costs became its motto. The more measured approach that Professor Christensen taught was ignored.

Thus, in tech, the idea was more like “destructive innovation,” which to me was distilled in Facebook’s famous sign that was once plastered all over the walls at its headquarters: “Move Fast and Break Things.”

I have always wondered why the company chose those words. I have no problem with “move fast,” which Professor Christensen would not have quibbled with, since being nimble was a core competency that he touted. It was the word “break” that stuck in my head like a bad migraine.

Why use a violent and thoughtless word like “break” and not one more hopeful, like “change” or “transform” or “invent”? And, if “break” was to be the choice, what would happen after the breaking? Would there be fixing? Could there be any fixing after the breaking? “Break” sounded painful. And, back to today’s subject, Professor Christensen never talked about that.

In fact, Professor Christensen’s approach was quite the opposite. He learned in 2010 that he had lymphoma, then he had a stroke. Within two years, he published the book that I like best, titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?” It is at turns spiritual and sometimes self-helpy, taking Professor Christensen’s management thinking and applying it to how to live a life.

This book should be newly relevant, as tech is casting about for its next act; we’ve been talking about the negative impact of tech’s disruptive innovations for a while now. Techies measure everything — and so Professor Christensen’s bracing prescriptions are perhaps perfect as the tech industry seeks redemption.

For example, he wrote:

“It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”

And: “In fact, how you allocate your own resources can make your life turn out to be exactly as you hope or very different from what you intend.”

And, most of all: “Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.”

Perhaps the tech industry does not deserve the kind and good advice that Professor Christensen imparted, but it should take it anyway. That way, while he rests in peace, it could give us some, too.

Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing New York Times opinion writer.