Clayton Christensen beat a heart attack, cancer and a stroke in three years. In the latest issue of Forbes magazine I interviewed theHarvard Business School professorand those close to him about his experience battling these three grave illnesses. The story covers it all: life, death and a plan to fix the health care system.
Clayton Christensen, 58, is one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years. The Harvard Business School professor’s 1997 book,The Innovator’s Dilemma, introduced in elegant terms the notion of“disruptive innovation,” which explains how cheaper, simpler or unexpected products and services can bring down big companies like U.S. Steel, Xerox and Digital Equipment. Every day business leaders call him or make the pilgrimage to his office in Boston, Mass. to get advice or thank him for his ideas. A consulting firm he started popularizes his work, while a hedge fund run by one of his sons puts money to work betting on disruptive technologies.
One industry that always eluded Christensen’s influence was health care. Caregivers and insurers told him his theories didn’t apply to their complex industry. Christensen knew they were wrong. His investigation culminated in his 2009 book, The Innovator’s Prescription, written with two doctors. It exposed the many ways health care was broken and recommended numerous ways it can be systematized and disrupted the same way mainframes gave way to PCs and now iPhones.
Christensen’s work took on new urgency the past few years as he suffered a heart attack followed by cancer followed by a stroke. For Christensen it was not a reason to get too upset. It was another opportunity, in a lifetime full of them, to gain insight into how to make the world work better. Because of his July stroke it took a long time for Christensen to be ready to sit down with FORBES. He was in intensive speech therapy, eight hours a day at the beginning. But he graciously agreed to tell his inspiring story in January, the same month he went back to teaching. Here it is in his words, along with those of his family, friends and close colleagues.
My dad died at age 49 from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A wonderful dad. Even back then in 1975 the probability that it would go into remission was about 80%. So I happily went off to Oxford. Once I was there for six weeks it was clear that he was in trouble. The Rhodes Trust was just marvelous. I went to talk to the warden Sir Edgar Williams and after two minutes he said, “We’ll send you home. You can come back next week, next month, next year, ten years from now.” I was with my dad for the last two months before he died. It was the most wonderful, happiest experience of my life to take care of my dad.
He worked for a department store in Salt Lake, ZCMI. As we were growing up he took us to work on Saturday to help him put the food on the shelves. I knew his job pretty well. I kept it up [after he got sick]. That kept us on the same salary and insurance. He dictated to me his life history. Most I’d heard before. I put it together into a biography. It’s been a wonderful thing. As my kids grew up, on Sunday morning I’d say, “Okay, guys, read pages 20 to 30 in Grandpa’s biography, and let’s talk about what it means for us.”
My mom also died of cancer. She was 82. That was just about five years ago. In the Mormon Church we believe we can be married for all eternity, not till death do you part. As Mom was getting older she was excited, truly excited, that within a few years she’d be with Dad again. I’ve known people who wanted to die, but most of them were so miserable they wanted to escape it. But in this case my mom was healthy. She didn’t want to live too long that she couldn’t take care of herself. She was so excited when her doctor said that she had pancreatic cancer and likely would only live six or seven weeks. She had a great life and a great family. “Now I can see your dad again,” she told me.
Ann Christensen (oldest daughter)
My dad is a perpetual student. He’d come home from work every day excited about some comment a student had made or a paper they had written. He’d say, “You’ll never believe what I learned today.” It turned into dinner table conversation.
Matthew Christensen (oldest son)
Too many of his former students who come back, too many people period, say family is important or my religious beliefs are important. But if you look at how they spend any given week, they spend 90 hours at work. They leave before their kids wake up and come back after they go to sleep. When my dad was at the Boston Consulting Group, he would go in super early and come home early. He was famous for leaving early. We would play catch in the daylight.