How Clay Christensen changed the way we work, design, and live

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Feb 11, 2020
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On Jan 25, Clay Christensen passed away from complications from Leukemia. The Harvard professor and The Innovator’s Dilemma author changed our perception of innovation as businesses entered the digital age, taught us how disruptive upstarts can defeat well-established brands, and helped us design better products by showing us that people don’t buy a product: They “hire” it to do a specific job. What’s more, Christensen challenged us to find a path to fulfillment in his best-selling book How Will You Measure Your Life?, which deeply influenced many tech trailblazers, including Steve Jobs.

“The essence of his work has carried through pretty much every impressive tech innovation and business strategy we’ve seen over the past few decades,” says Sam Dix, Senior Strategist at frog. “It’s such a great loss, not just in business or design, but globally. His voice is so significant in shaping how we think about progress and product.”

Geoffrey Schwartz, Executive Strategy Director at frog’s New York studio, says that Clay’s help in codifying a more detailed language within the innovation world helped him elevate relationships with clients.

“Using a framework like ‘disruptive innovation’ versus just ‘optimizing’ on products or services allows you to understand from mild to wild how far out we should be,” Geoffrey says. “Before it was so blue sky and challenging to communicate organizational needs. His frameworks and terms became a common lexicon to help decipher what ‘good’ looks like, or where we should go.”

Aarron Walter, InVision’s VP of Design Education, says Jobs to Be Done marked a very important shift in thinking about user behaviors. Rather than being informed by a persona, design was hitting something deeper: the idea that products aren’t necessarily bought, but hired to accomplish a job. And that that “need” stems from a larger narrative of motivations and desires that drive a user.

When Walter was at Mailchimp, he used Clay’s ideas on the switch interview process. His design team would get on the phone with customers and map out the forces that caused them to “hire” Mailchimp or even a competitor’s product. They would then come up with a “job story,” or a simple phrase defining the “job” the product was hired to do. While Walter says this process was difficult at first, it eventually allowed them to better uncover user motivations. They could also package their results in a way that they could be easily transferred from team to team, and project to project.

While Clay’s ideas affected day-to-day design practices, they permeated into the designer’s personal lives as well. “His people-centered philosophy is grounding and refreshing, and has hugely influenced how I weigh the transformative influence of human-centered design,” says Emily Campbell, senior design specialist on the Design Transformation team at InVision. “It’s more critical than ever that we adopt his guidance towards humility, learning and compassion. He served us by demonstrating that these traits can ultimately unlock things we only dreamed possible.”

But his human-centric mode of operating was not just a theory. One of the most influential things about him was that he lived his principles. Brian Kardon, InVision’s CMO, first read The Innovator’s Dilemma while at Eloqua. He attests that Christen’s principles helped him defend the company against competition. As a thank you for his ideas, Brian wrote Clay a personal note. Surprisingly, Clay called him back.

“He had a million commitments, but he still made time to hear my story and get specifics,” Brian says. I learned from him that, even at the top of your game, there’s still room to get better, to listen and learn.”

Brian’s story doesn’t end there: A few years later, he saw Clay speak at a Dreamforce conference: Clay had had a stroke and had lost his ability to speak—which, as a Harvard professor, was his livelihood—and told a story about how he relearned with his grandchild. Brian thought this was an amazing story, and approached him after the talk to say so. Remarkably, Clay remembered Brian and their talk about Eloqua. He invited Brian to coffee (for him, tea), and the two had a great conversation.

“Clay was always taking in things. He was never too busy or important to reach out,” Brian says. “There are very few people I respect more than him, less for his intellect as his humanity. His legacy is less about his books and frameworks, as it is a model for how to lead your life.”

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