Are you from India?” thundered a voice from the back at Harvard Business School (HBS) cafeteria. To my pleasant surprise, I saw the towering Clayton Christensen with his characteristic gentle smile pulling his chair as he sat next to me. Before I responded, he continued, “Indians are innovative”, as I said “Yes” to both his statements. Clay’s voice that mesmerised the entire class in HBS magnetically attracted me to engage in a lifetime conversation opportunity. This conversation shall eternally be etched in my memories and a worthy recall at all times and particularly now with Clay’s passing away.
Sipping our piping hot coffee, Clay started with his fascination for the Tata Consultancy Services in which he was a board member at that time. He shared many of his original game-changing thoughts connecting the ‘unconnectables’ often dismissed as statistical deviance. It is this unique way of creating new knowledge by training students to think differently that made Clay one of the most influential thinkers and the most sought-after faculty member at HBS. His classes at HBS were always intellectually decorated in his unique way of explaining the power of disruption and innovation ranging from steel to coffee, tunnelled hard ideas softly into our brains. That’s the magic of Clay who could use management as a tool to not only create wealth but also to change livelihoods of millions.
Clay’s entry into our class after he suffered a massive stroke in 2010 was marked by his tall stature at the centre of the lecture theatre not to be missed by the eyes and ears that were keen to see and hear him. His health conditions made him search for words for the ideas that popped up in advance. Ideas that transformed industries from steel to healthcare to education to almost all. Clay’s Disruptive Technology, in my view, was responsible for TCS’s game-changing iON as a product/service and similarly it was Clay who formed the foundational pathway for corporates’ and individuals’ revenue pipeline. If one were to choose the top 10 articles of Clay for Harvard Business Review or top 10 ideas that shaped success stories, it would be tougher than a PhD thesis. Every idea or article was in response to a unique challenge or question that many failed to see or ask.
Clay in his own words said: “When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage—a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.” As Clay has his interview with God, the world that he leaves behind shall always shower its gratuitous encomiums on this colossal genius. He left the breakfast table in 30 minutes 10 years ago. Never did I think that he would leave us the way he did on January 23. Clay’s unseen presence will occupy board rooms worldwide in absentia.
S Vaidhyasubramaniam Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University