Every once in a great while, someone articulates an idea that becomes so widely acknowledged that people soon have trouble recalling the time when it was considered an original thought.
Clayton Christensen developed an idea like that 15 years ago, and the technology business world has long since embraced it as conventional wisdom. The Harvard Business School professor’s best-known book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,’’ described a process he called disruptive innovation and explained how it threatened dominant companies in one industry after another.
That idea in a nutshell: Competition offering less sophisticated but much cheaper products arrives to capture the low end of a market, the same way Japanese car companies first came to America selling tinny compacts. Companies dominating those markets fail to meet the challenge because they are making huge profit margins from higher-end products. But the cheaper alternatives continue to improve, eating away at the leader’s market share and profit margins, eventually turning the industry upside down.
Disruptive innovation explained radical change in businesses from steel mills to now-extinct minicomputer makers such as Digital Equipment Corp. The concept transformed Christensen from distinguished academic to certified Big Thinker. He became truly famous in the business world when Intel Corp.’s Andy Grove championed the idea - and its creator - in the late 1990s.
A lot happened in the years since, while Christensen tested his ideas in more industries and wrote other books. He survived a series of serious health problems, recovering from a heart attack and undergoing treatment for follicular lymphoma before suffering a stroke in 2010. Christensen lost most of his verbal capacity at the time of the stroke but has recovered to the point you would hardly notice in conversation today.
Over the years, Christensen also noticed something disturbing about people who were once his classmates at Harvard and Oxford. More were living unhappy lives, and he often saw bad personal or professional choices as the root of their problems.
Those observations led Christensen to shape a last lecture for departing students in his class, urging them to think about the things that would give their lives meaning. Students encouraged him to deliver the lecture to the entire graduating business class and eventually it became a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?,’’ which goes on sale Tuesday.
Students, says Christensen, aren’t focused on “how they will manage their lives in a way that improves the probability they’ll end up with a life they’re happy with, as opposed to a life they would never sign up for. I just don’t think they think about it.’’
Christensen began working on the book as he recovered from his stroke. He had the assistance of two coauthors, former student James Allworth and Karen Dillon, then the editor of the Harvard Business Review.
The author of a business-book classic is moving to the self-help aisle with familiar themes about personal choices and taking action. Christensen redeploys many of the same business analysis techniques taught in class to sort through common life problems.
You might expect his book’s sections about professional satisfaction and personal happiness. The final part, about staying out of jail, is based on real experiences. Two of the author’s Oxford classmates got into trouble with the law. The notorious former Enron Corp. president Jeff Skilling, serving a 24-year prison sentence for fraud, was part of Christensen’s business school class at Harvard.
Christensen is a Mormon who talks often about the important role religion has played in his life. His book delivers a secular message but many of its points - from finding meaning in life to resisting temptations to bend principles - are themes you could easily hear in a church.
Companies that seek out Christensen for business advice don’t hear an explicit message about how they should solve a problem. He tells a story about visiting Intel executives after the publication of his first book and suggesting how they should think - but not what to think - about a new wave of disruptive innovation emerging in the computer chip industry. Rather than talking about silicon, Christensen described the experience of steel mills and let Intel manager’s find their own solution to lower-cost competition.
Christensen takes a similar approach to self-help advice. The point, he says, is to help young people think about what should matter and let them make up their own minds. It’s a simple enough message, but so big it grew well beyond a classroom.