A previously unpublished interview with Clayton Christensen about business, God, and Star Wars

Going deep.
Going deep.
Image: Photo via World Economic Forum/Flickr
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Clayton Christensen, one of the most influential management thinkers of the last century, died Jan. 23. He was 67.

Christensen, who taught at Harvard Business School, was most famous for his theory of creative disruption, which explained how large corporations and institutions fall victim to their own success and become prey to smaller upstarts. His theory, which became the basis for his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, was embraced by Silicon Valley CEOs and founders, many of whom saw themselves as swashbuckling disruptors, taking on the establishment with their daring innovations. His book was championed by Intel’s Andy Grove and Apple’s Steve Jobs, and called one of the six best business books ever by The Economist.

In 2016, I interviewed Christensen about a more recent book, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, and we talked about how he regretted how “disruption” had become a business buzzword divorced from his theory. “It allows people to justify whatever they want to do as, ‘Oh, this is disruptive,’ and they don’t ever read the book,” he said.

In preparing for that interview, I read a long profile of Christensen in The New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar which went into depth about his religious faith. A Mormon, Christensen was an outlier at both Harvard and among the Silicon Valley executives eager for his insights. After we discussed his book and theories, we talked for another 20 minutes or so about how his theory of disruption can be applied to his faith.

After we spoke, he sent me an email thanking me for the interview—this is almost unheard of in journalism—and for asking him about his religion. He suggested we publish a second story about his views on faith. I never did, but instead was inspired by our conversation to write a feature about evangelicals in Silicon Valley. (He had nice things to say about that story, too.)

With his passing, we felt it was only appropriate to publish the last part of that interview. I’ve lightly edited it for length and clarity.

Quartz: For the people who don’t know you, do they find it surprising that you are such a deeply religious person? And has that gotten in the way of your work in any way?

Christensen: I deeply believe there is a God. I truly believe that God exists, and if I deeply believe that is true, then it’s not honest for me to hide that belief. I try never to impose my belief on others, meaning, I never say “I think I’m right and you’re wrong.” But if I explain how my belief in God has helped me in my life, I think I can help other people.

Harvard is an interesting place because it obviously has a school of divinity. Kim Clark was the dean of Harvard Business School and a mormon. And yet I think a lot of the rest of the country probably thinks of Harvard as a very a-religious, atheistic kind of place. You’ve certainly thrived there. Is there any discontinuity between being deeply religious in a place like Harvard?

No. What I find is actually when I give a presentation at the school or out of the school, I always try to reference in some way or signal to people in the audience that I actually believe in God. And a large proportion of the people in the audience will come up to me afterwards and say, I’m glad that you referenced your faith in God because I believe in God and I’m afraid to say that. It’s just a shame that people who believe that they’re truthful in academia impose their beliefs on people who believe. I think it’s like another silent majority. I’m grateful that I can stand up.

You can tell me if this is too facile or is trivializing your faith, and I certainly don’t want to do that, but it occurred to me that you could apply your disruption theory to religion and the role that Mormonism has in opposition to  mainstream Christianity—Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. I’m probably not the first person to bring this up with you. Do you think about that?

I think about it a lot. So the application of the theory of disruption has been, if you look historically when Christ established his church in the time of the New Testament, the traditional church of Judaism was a concentrated church. Meaning that the people who had the power consolidated that power with the high priest and the people who Christ targeted were people who weren’t at the core, but they were people who were servants and they were fishermen and so on. And then what happened is, as Christ was killed and the control of the church moved toward Rome, a Christian church became centralized. And the people who were in the middle had all of the power and they determined what people could and could not read and made the  scriptures inaccessible to the masses. And then when the Protestant reformation came in, like Luther, they tried to decentralize the church again, but then over time Protestant churches got centralized.

The essence of the Mormon church is we have no professional clergy. Everything that happens in the church is done by you and I. And when you go to the church, there’s not a minister. It’s just a man, a woman, and a child who give the service. So it really is the Mormon church that is an important player in the disruption of Christianity.

It strikes me that the work of missionaries is to sort of disrupt the established religion where they go and serve, maybe not always, but often, with the lower classes, the people who felt left out of the benefits of the more established mainstream religion. It seems like that kind of describes your disruption theory, and the mainstream religion may say, well, we didn’t need those people anyway—until it becomes too late and they get eaten alive by the disruptive religion.

You’re exactly right. Can I tell you a funny story? So do you remember the very first Star Wars movie and there was a scene where Han Solo and Luke Skywalker go to this bar? Han Solo got there first and he was back in the corner and then Skywalker shows up and he passed by a band that was playing. And do you remember that?

Yeah. The Cantina scene, the famous Cantina scene.

Every conceivable form of life was in it. And, when my wife Christine and I saw that scene, we both looked at each other and said, “That’s exactly what our ward in the Mormon church is like.” There is one of every conceivable life form in our church and that’s who we are, and we love it. And that’s an element of it being disruptive.

And you’ve never had reason to question that? There’s a lot of anti-Mormon criticism out there, you know. The criticisms about (LDS church founder) Joseph Smith’s teachings and his lifestyle, all that. You’re an educated man, a sophisticated man. You’ve not had reason to doubt what you’ve been told? Or you’ve been able to reconcile any consistencies, I’m assuming.

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Right. The article that Larissa (MacFarquhar) wrote in the New Yorker described a powerful experience I had when I was at Oxford and read the book of Mormon. And that experience with the spirit of God continues with me. Every day almost somebody says, yeah, but look at how this piece of data contradicts that piece of data. The reason it doesn’t bother me is because I think I have a rational view of what data really is. God hasn’t been giving data to mankind. Every piece of data was developed by a person who has an agenda, and the agenda includes what pieces of the phenomena should we include in the data and what elements of the phenomenon should we omit.

We can never believe that the data that exists today is all of the data that will be known, you know. And so if somebody comes up with a piece of information or data that contradicts something that the church seems to believe, the only thing you can say is, “Oh my gosh, that’s interesting—let me watch and see what else emerges.” That’s the way I keep my bearings. The true north is the Book of Mormon really is a true book. And then as the rest of the data comes in piece by piece, what seems to be inconsistent with our church at one point can sometimes be consistent at another another point.

So for issues of the Mormon church that have been troubling and disturbing to people, is it your feeling that the historical record isn’t clear yet, or that it’s part of a bigger story that in the fullness of time the context will be clear and, and there will just be a better understanding.

Well, yeah. And so do we have the whole story? Well, we have the story that we have. Is it the whole story, I don’t know.

It’s interesting how deeply thoughtful and rational people can approach something where a certain amount of irrationality is involved. Faith, almost by definition, requires a suspension of scientific thought, and so this is something that’s always interesting to me.

The only thing I would change about what you said would be about contradiction between scientific thought and religious thought. I think if scientists cannot countenance religion, they are not good scientists.

I see. And that’s because of this idea that we don’t know everything that we don’t know? 

That’s right. And isn’t it interesting they believe that in academia, you can know everything, and, actually, if they were scientists, they have to say, “Oh my gosh, look at what we don’t know.” To believe that there is not a God, because we can prove that there’s not a God, is just wrong. It’s absolutely not consistent with truth, or with science.