The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton M. Christensen [rating=4]
Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, he presents his research into business life cycles and how larger companies find it difficult to innovate. He shows how these larger companies eventually are replaced by innovators who make inroads by taking the bottom markets willing ceded to them by the bigger companies. Little by little, the smaller companies eat away until they have market dominance themselves, leaving the once market leader without a place to go.
The concept of how small companies can thrive in a world dominated by large companies is an interesting one, especially for the entrepreneurs facing Goliath. Christensen lays out several test cases where the larger company couldn’t innovate, allowing smaller companies to enter at the bottom of the market. He even shows how and why it made sense for the management of these dominant companies to allow this to happen – at the time. Innovation is not an easy prospect for large companies because their large existing customer base often will not allow the innovations to move forward because it doesn’t fit their needs. Innovations often bring a different customer and large companies are not always able to choose to service both.
Christensen provides a few examples of this phenomena in excruciating detail, studying the rapidly changing industries of disk drives and steel production. He rounds out the book with a discussion of the steam shovel and how it lost out to hydraulics. In a final case study, he examines how the principles could be applied to a potential disruptive technology – the electric car. He lays out a complete game plan for a company to take the innovations available and capture a new market. Sadly, in the years since publication in 1997, it doesn’t appear anyone has taken up the challenge, although perhaps Tesla Motors has come the closest.
The problem I have with Christensen’s book is his writing style. He is definitely a Harvard Business School professor. He delves deeply into his research, explaining every nuance of the industry in such detail as to leave no doubt he has done an extensive study. I grew up in IT, living just miles away from one of the great innovators of the disk drive industry, yet I learned many things about disk drives. I hadn’t imagined I could get a technical education from a book on business management.
Christensen’s writing style was the biggest barrier to the material. His explanations were too deeply steeped with details that didn’t move the story forward. While the datum was valid and important, it didn’t necessarily have to be presented in long, exhaustive detail. Today’s readers do not have a lot of time or desire to spend long stretches of deep explanation. I found it necessary to spend at least 45 minutes reading before getting “into” the book. I couldn’t help comparing the style to that of Jim Collins in Great By Choice. Yes, Collins is also a researcher who loves detail. The difference is that Collins moves all his detailed explanations to the appendix where those who desire it can find it. The book itself is organized into fast moving, short chapters laying out the salient points distilled from the exhaustive research. I would really have appreciated this approach in this book by Christensen. Collins is a storyteller where Christensen is a Harvard professor.
Christensen’s insight is worth the slog through the knee deep data. Just be ready with a canteen for dry stretches of endless detail as far as the eye can see.