Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clayton Christensen

For many years I've admired the groundbreaking work of Clayton Christensen on innovation.  I first met Christensen back in 1998.  I was working at the Globe and Mail and Thomson Newspapers (the owner of the Globe at the time), invited me to an all-day session in Boston where Christensen was presenting his theory of disruptive innovation.  We were given a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma (judged by The Economist as one of the six best business books of all time), and treated - and I do mean treated -  to Christensen’s eloquent explanations.   It was an epiphany.  So much of what I had observed in the world of business suddenly clicked into a framework.  And so much of what I’ve done with my professional life since then has hinged on that original exposure to his ideas. 

The big ideas that I took away with me from that day, and subsequent exposures to his theories are:

  • Technology improves faster than users’ ability to absorb, or willingness to pay, for those improvements
  • Incumbent companies, seeking to maximize profits and margins and cater to their biggest and best customers, focus their attention on the possibilities at the top end of that technological curve, overshooting the majority of the market
  • Disruptive innovations offer just good enough quality on traditional attributes, but provide exceptional cost effectiveness, convenience or accessibility that appeal to the least demanding consumers or non-consumers
  • Technology improvements make these products good enough to take over the core markets of the incumbents (see first point above), while incumbents are loath to compete because to do so would attack their own business models
As this little summary suggests, it’s all about the business model and doing things in a radically different way – usually starting by offering less than what’s already there.

Give me 5 minutes and a cocktail napkin, and I will draw the above diagram to explain disruptive innovation to anyone who'd like to hear  - and many who would not!

Fast forward to my taking a job as Corporate Advisor to Michael Sabia, the CEO of BCE.  The  first thing I did was recommend that he should read The Innovator’s Solution, Christensen’s second book.  BCE, as Canada’s largest telephone company, was the prime victim in an industry which was being totally disrupted.  Could understanding the process of disruption help us on the path to seizing opportunities in this new world instead of being victimized?  I thought that getting the boss to read Christensen would be a good start.  I arranged a copy of the book for Michael.  He said he’d try to read it on the weekend.  On Monday, I eagerly called to see whether he'd found time in his frenetic schedule to read it.  “No”, he said.  There was a big pause while I swallowed my disappointment.  He went on to say, “I read it twice”.

And so began my fantastic journey in getting to know Christensen better and in working with him and learning from him.  We did several projects with him at BCE, involving him speaking to groups of executives, from which sprang various workshops to discuss specific implications of disruption theory for the communications business.  He would start such talks and workshops by expressing his honour to be there, learning from a great company.  (Over the years, I came to see this humility was not assumed but real).  He would then present his ideas with crystal clarity.  Questions were welcomed with remarks such as “You know, that’s a great question.  It really gets to the heart of the matter.  Thanks for asking”, after which he would deliver a succinct and lucid answer to the question.   He was always generous with praise for his students and  anyone who had contributed to his thinking.  When he invited my comments on his upcoming book, he took my modest input and criticisms seriously and, to my surprise and delight, I was mentioned in the acknowledgements.    You always walk away from a conversation with Clay impressed by his wide-ranging intellect (not to mention his 6'8" height!), but, remarkably, you also say to yourself “Gee, I never knew I was that smart”.  He just has that effect of making you feel good about yourself.

So, what prompted me to suddenly write this paean?  It was Clay’s recent address to the Ontario Hospital Association.    Clay was invited to speak because of his recent book The Innovator’s Prescription.  He’s been tussling with the ideas of disruption and how they apply to healthcare for several years now.  So he was a logical speaker for the OHA’s annual conference.   

However there was a little glitch in the plan.  After fighting off cancer last year, a heart attack before that, and diabetes since he was 30, he suffered a stroke in July which left him with expressive aphasia, the loss of the ability to produce language (spoken or written).   Wow, what a crime to have this happen to this most eloquent of men. 

As you might expect from what you’ve read so far, Christensen did not cancel the engagement, but pushed himself to deliver the talk.  He started by expressing his gratitude to the organizers for their patience with him.  Then he explained that for his whole life, he’d been learning words by writing them on little file cards and storing them away in a file cabinet in his brain.  They all had bar codes on them and a little gatekeeper in his head would pull out the words as he needed them.  However, since his stroke, the gatekeeper had been on holiday.  Would we the audience please excuse him if he sometimes used the wrong word, and shout it out if we could see him struggling to access a particular word without his gatekeeper helper.

Despite the caveats, Christensen delivered to the audience of 2,500 a clearly organized, highly relevant, spectacularly cogent and highly fluent account of disruptive innovation and what it could mean to healthcare.  Indeed, there were a handful of instances when he searched for a word.  You could almost sense the audience leaning forward to help him.  It was a masterful presentation – for someone who hadn’t had a stroke.  It was a stunning triumph for someone who had.  It met with a heartfelt standing ovation and thunderous applause that just didn’t stop.   How well deserved.

In a future post, I'll tell you what he actually said.


TEDxIBYork was a consuming project for me over many months.  It was wonderful to have it all come off without a hitch.  The speakers put intense energy and commitment into their talks and it showed up on the stage.  The host, David Newland, did a superb job of holding the whole day together.  The AV team and filming team were on their toes all day.  The whole committee came together to tie up all the details that make something like this feel smooth and enjoyable to all the attendees.

There was a full house of 500 attendees in person.  The students were coming off a magnificent Speak Out Day at the York School the day before and brought their energy into the room.   The attendees often hooted and hollered in response to a speaker, led on by the enthusiastic teens – imagine, a bunch of jaded teens getting excited about ideas.  It was wonderful to witness. 

Despite being very quiet about the availability of the live web cast (we wanted to make sure that IB schools planning to watch online had a solid feed, with no overload problems), over 1,600 sites watched during the day, from over 40 countries.  We had unexpectedly high participation from Argentina; then we remembered that the devoted mother of one of our speakers was there and apparently single-handedly raised awareness in the whole country!  What a great lady.

We also discouraged the use of electronic devices during the day, instead exhorting people to talk to other attendees – the most valuable part of a TEDx experience.  However, there was a steady stream of positive feedback on Twitter during the conference and blog postings about it afterwards.

I keep hearing about people who’ve made connections – during the break and the wonderful party afterwards.    One teacher said that virtually all her students had managed to talk to all the speakers.  Several people have asked for follow-up introductions with people they met.  This is a huge value of a conference like this: get a lot of people in one room who are all interested in ideas, and the sparks fly.

I’ll be blogging soon about some of the great talks we heard.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Signs of Age

There are moments that in life when the realization suddenly hits you that you may be aging.  I was talking to a 20-something recently about plans for the upcoming TEDxIBYork conference.  Should we have a stash of markers available for people to identify their gift bags?  I pointed out that this might create a traffic jam, and why not let people use their own pens?  He seemed rather stunned that I would think anyone was likely to carry a pen with them.  "It's probably an age thing", he gently pointed out.

The Wave: In the Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

Big waves.  Really, really big waves.  Surfers yearn for them.  Ships run from them.  Scientists study them.  Not that long ago such big waves were thought to be exaggerations or hallucinations, the 'big fish' stories of deluded mariners.  Of course, most of the sailors who saw such waves didn't live to tell the story.  Even Shackleton, who encountered such a wave when exploring the Northwest Passage, was not believed when he described the size of wave which hit his boat - a wave whose foam he originally thought was a cloud because it was so high in the sky. 

But today we know such waves exist.  Science has recorded many such rogues waves - waves that are two to four times higher than the surrounding swell - but the physics still can't completely explain them.  The largest wave ever recorded was in Lituya Bay in Alaska, a stupendous 1,079 feet.  The current theory is that waves behave, in part, like light waves, part energy part wave.  And somehow energy concentrates into certain waves which then end up much higher than the waves around them. 

The Wave takes us to visit the scientists who study these waves, and the sailors and captains who sail through them, and to Lloyd's of London who insure these ships.  Almost two ships a week are lost at sea.  Some disappear without a trace, without even time to send an SOS.  The book posits that the most likely cause of such mysterious losses is a huge unexpected rogue wave.  Picture yourself as a captain of a ship valiantly struggling against 50-foot seas.  All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes a huge 150-foot wave.  It hardly seems fair!  Understanding of these waves gets even more important as we build more offshore oil platforms and wind farms.

Although there's lots in this book about shipping, and the science of big waves, the heart revolves around surfers.  This is a breed of person I had not been familiar with, and they're drawn in fascinating detail by Susan Casey, particularly Laird Hamilton, the greatest surfer of them all.  These men aspire to surf a 100-foot wave.  Think of it - that's ten stories high!

They've invented a new method of surfing to challenge these big waves.  It's called tow-surfing, where a jet ski tows the surfer into position for a big wave, because you can't possibly paddle fast enough for these big waves.  It's also handy to have the jet ski there to rescue you if you fall in such a monstrous wave.

There are companies which develop sophisticated algorithms to predict where the biggest waves are coming.  When they broadcast news of super waves, the surfers jump onto planes to head off to Jaws or Hookipa or Egypt in Maui, or Ghost Tree or Mavericks in California, or even to be dropped by helicopter at Cortes Bank, a spot in the ocean far off California.  You see, these waves have names, a sort of 'family name' for all the waves that roll in at that particular place.  These surfers know the individual characteristics of these waves, and they're all different.  They want to catch them at their biggest.

And there are photographers who specialize in photographing these magnificent and beautiful feats and rush to those same airports.  When the forecast predicts especially big waves, these surfers all hop on a plane, in a frenzy to be there when the big waves break.  They often head out to the waves after exhausting travel, little sleep - but lots of adrenalin.  The area is crowded with would-be heroes, many of whom are ill-equipped to be out there.  And none of whom can resist the allure.  A picture develops of men who only feel truly alive when they're on that wave.  And they're not young men - they're in their 40s and have wives and families.  With battered bodies.  Very battered bodies.

Susan Casey, the author of The Wave, is a Canadian who's pursued a publishing career,and  is currently the editor of O, The Oprah Magazine.  But she's worked in the past on the publishing side on the book Into Thin Air.  This doesn't surprise me because that book had some of the same riveting elements as the wave.

Casey herself is a surfer.  Her travels for this book involved some pretty hair-raising encounters with dangerous situations, just watching these surfers.  I saw her speak at a Literary Breakfast in Toronto and she was a captivating speaker.  I had dreams of enticing her to speak at TEDxIBYork, but alas she felt she was too busy to make the trip.

The Wave is definitely a book worth reading.