One of the most intelligent, inspiring, and influential thought leaders in the world of innovation was lost with the passing of Clayton Christensen. His work in the theory of disruption has had, and will continue to have, impact on how executives lead their companies in a world of constant change.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the term “disruption” remains confusing to many, if not most of the practitioners in the fields of strategy and innovation. For Christensen, disruption had a very specific meaning: a lower-end substitute eating away at the market for higher-end products until it eventually surpasses and replaces them (to over-simplify it). For most of the business world, disruption simply means that the supplier of one product or service got their pants beaten off by some other product or service, wherever it came from.
I got to see the response to Christensen’s theory play out firsthand while working in the plant-based meat space (if you aren’t familiar with what plant-based meat is, think Burger King’s Impossible Whopper or KFC’s recently announced Beyond Chicken). Such products have been around for decades. But as Eric Bohl, Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for the Missouri Farm Bureau, described them, such products tended to be just like a “disgusting tofu burger that only a dedicated hippie could convince himself to eat.” And indeed, such products were generally targeted at the vanishingly small vegan/vegetarian consumer. Nothing for the mainstream meat producer to worry about.
Or was it?
Enter the startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They reset the quality bar for such products. Rather than just trying to be the best veggie patty around, as one such veggie-patty executive described their own strategy to me, Impossible and Beyond targeted animal meat flavor, texture, and cooking functionality as their goal. Their years of research and development paid off. As Mr. Bohl put it, they are “95 percent of the way there, and the recipe is likely to only get better.”
Before Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma introduced the concept of disruption, meat companies would likely have continued to ignore these upstarts, dismissing them as a passing fad, or letting them have their tiny little niche while targeting their stalwart animal-meat base consumer.
Instead, wary executives in these companies took a different course, chanting the mantra “I don’t want my company to be the one that gets disrupted.” Meat producers around the globe, like Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods, PHW-Gruppe – the list continues to grow – have all embraced the trend and invested in the plant-based meat trend, both internally and externally.
I am convinced that would never have happened without Christensen. I’m sure many other industries have witnessed a similar impact. While my example does not strictly comply with Christensen’s narrow definition of disruption (the plant-based products tend to be higher priced than the incumbent animal products, and Christensen looked primarily at lower-priced alternatives), it was the awareness of disruptive forces that led these executives to look at their strategic responses differently.
So, while I mourn his passing, I am comforted knowing that he will live on in his disruptive legacy, which will continue to influence strategic thinking, innovation efforts, and academic research for years to come. Rest in peace, Dr. Christensen.