CLAY CHRISTENSEN: Jeff Bezos, Scott Cook, And Steve Jobs Got Disruption Right

It's been some 16 years since Clay Christensen published "The Innovator's Dilemma" and brought the concept of disruptive innovation to the wider world. Despite that, many companies and executives still haven't managed to take its core lesson to heart, that it's not enough to just look at the data. You have to constantly ask questions and look to the future.

In an interview appearing at strategy+business, Christensen argues that many executives are pushed to make decisions that are quick and profitable, and they frequently rely heavily on incomplete data. "Data is heavy," Christensen says. People want to solve problems and tell their bosses they solved it, not bring them issues all the time. As a result, the higher you get, the less real information you receive. The most successful executives think about why things might turn out differently, have a theory, and constantly update it. Few people are good at that. They don't ask the right questions, and they aren't paranoid enough.
When asked which executives thought about disruption the right way, Christensen cited ex-Intel CEO and co-founder Andy Grove and his response to inexpensive laptops. As for more recent examples, Christensen had three:

"Of the managers I’ve known, I think Scott Cook, who is the founder of Intuit, is most prone to think this way. I also think of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. Amazon has launched three really important disruptors: online retailing, the disruption of publishing, and the cloud services that give everyone access to sophisticated IT technology. But you have to hope that this approach is institutionalized at Amazon, and not dependent on the instincts of one person."

That last piece of the equation is particularly important. After Grove left, the leaders who succeeded him failed to anticipate the explosion of mobile devices. It's worth noting that Apple's been struggling lately under Steve Jobs' successor, Tim Cook.

That's because Apple's being attacked with the same technique that it used on RIM to dominate the smartphone market, Christensen says. RIM was an incredibly closed system, Apple was much more modular, and the iPhone and its successors nearly killed the Blackberry. Now the much more open Android system is causing Apple problems.

Christensen's advice to executives and managers looking to emulate these three? Ask good questions. When it comes to disruption, ask which competitors threaten you, as well as which ones you're likely to threaten. For long-term strategy, ask what job you're trying to do, and make sure you don't get away from it. Most importantly, challenge your assumptions. Just because you've been operating successfully or measuring yourself one way for years doesn't mean you aren't entirely wrong and ripe for disruption.