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Eulogy for Clayton Christensen

The Brett Chulu

IT is with a heavy heart that I learned of the passing away of professor Clayton Magleby Christensen on January 23, 2020 in Boston — he succumbed to leukemia after a spirited battle with the disease for many years.

The world has lost a fine thinker on management and economic matters – it is beyond debate that Christensen, an affable man gifted with a towering intellect and a warm heart belongs to the pantheon of men and women whose ideas have shaped our world and radically altered our management and economic worldview, and even our social lives.

A loved teacher at the Harvard Business School, a riveting storyteller, with the unmatched gift of simplifying lofty ideas and make them accessible to non-academia.

This would not surprise many who know what his seminal work and lifelong pursuit was — advancement of his disruptive innovation research-derived theory. A disruptive innovation is a product or service that removes complexity and makes the product or service that was once a preserve of a few rich and skilled people affordable and accessible to the majority of people who traditionally were barred from accessing them due to prohibitive costs and technical operational complexities.

Even in his presentations, he was deliberately disruptive — meaning that he simplified his complex ideas to make them accessible to as many people as possible.
The concept of disruptive innovation, being a grounded theory, has tremendous grab such that many who with little or no understanding of the concept use it in an incorrect way, jargonising it, to validate their work and ideas. Many in the tech fields have, with little care and a lack of nuance, thrown about the term disruption to project their passionate desire to upset the existing the order of things — this is not what Christensen taught, very far from it.

Christensen, as he approached the sunset of his short impactful life, sought to correct the abuse of the concept he uncovered from a study of the evolution of the fast-changing disk drive industry from the 1970s down through the 1990s — he was now popularising the term empowering innovation in place of disruptive innovation.

This positive approach to this ground-breaking phenomenon will allow us to celebrate Christensen’s legacy and immortalise it for generations that will come.
Empowering innovations (disruptive innovations) that Zimbabweans are familiar with include cellphones, mobile money, sub-compact vehicles, smartphones, desk-tops, laptops, long-distance education, WhatsApp, drip irrigation, Zim-Science kit, YouTube, just to mention a few. African business luminaries that rule the roost today such as the Nigerian Aliko Dangote, the Sudanese Mo Ibrahim, our own son of the soil Strive Masiyiwa, to mention a few, have made their billions from bringing to Africa empowering innovations.

Empowering innovations are also how Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings (Netflix), all famous billionaire entrepreneurs, whose innovations started new industries, made their fortune. Nations such as the Asian tigers and China of late, have had their economic progress powered by empowering innovations.

Christensen has brilliantly shown how economic stagnation in Japan and in the United States has been largely due to these nations now churning out few empowering innovations as has been the case historically. In next week’s sequel, we will dissect this idea in more detail.

In eulogising Christensen, I will draw lessons from his selected works that as a country we can embrace in our quest to turn around our struggling economy.
I will begin with agriculture. The concept of empowering innovations can make a big difference in terms of agricultural productivity of our staple crop maize and even soya bean. A white Zimbabwean came up with an empowering innovation he called Pfumvudza to enable unskilled and less-resourced farmers, who are in the majority, with small patches of land to achieve world-class maize productivity on just one-sixteenth of a hectare for about US$50 variable costs.

Empowering innovations derive their potency from a combination of technology (no matter how simple) and a business model that focusses on lowering costs to enable non-consumers or non-producers to be brought into consumption or production.

Empowering innovations can take the form of bootstrapped technology. I have been working on refining the Pfumvudza empowering innovation in view of our increasingly dry spells. By adding drip irrigation (another empowering innovation) and another locally-developed non-electricity water pumping empowering innovation to the Pfumvudza base, millions of Zimbabwean farmers can achieve between 800kg to one tonne per one-sixteenth of a hectare.

This does not need government assistance — it needs entrepreneurs who understand how empowering innovations work. I am challenging our Zimbabwean graduates to form our own Food Valley (as in the Netherlands) where agro-tech start-ups mushroom and let hundreds and even thousands of empowering innovations bloom. It is not the business of government to create employment — entrepreneurs are the creators of employment and drivers of economic growth. Looking up to government to create employment is an idea built on a false premise.

Next, we focus on the media. Many media houses have to a large extent failed to respond to empowering innovations that developed independent of them and have been threatening their traditional business models.

We can learn from Christensen why the media houses have failed to monetise their social media and digital models. What most media houses failed to perceive is that they did not know that they did not know the underlying causal mechanisms underpinning the success of digital content-delivery models.

In short, they did not understand the nuts and bolts of empowering innovations. They make and continue to make the error of taking their old business models and overlaying them onto digital technologies — they are putting old wine in new skins. For instance, the digital platform is just a replica of the print version of the paper, with the traditional model of selling advertising space.

These are not empowering innovations — Christensen categorised these as sustaining innovations — improvements for existing customers. If the media business strategists could only understand that empowering innovations always focus on non-consumers, simplifying products and making them affordable, they would become very innovative and create new demand that they can monetise.

They can learn from Christensen’s grounded wisdom that if ever they are going to monetise digital platforms, they need to set completely independent business units with leadership teams schooled in the empowering innovations thinking, with the established business not interfering in terms of strategy and oversight. In simple terms, empowering innovations need both new wine and new skins.

l To be continued next week.

Chulu is a management consultant and a classic grounded theory researcher who has published research in an academic peer-reviewed international journal. — brettchuluconsultant@gmail.com.

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