Byline: Daniel McGinn
Management theorists have spent little time pondering potato salad. But on the apparently mundane subject of how to transport that all-American picnic dish, there's a lesson in what's becoming the hottest business theory of the new century. Decades ago, Tupperware solved the problem of how to carry deli items to the neighbor's cookout, but the company's heavy-duty plastic containers created unspoken anxieties. Because the containers can cost $5 each and will last for years, moms carefully guard their Tupperware trove, refusing to let kids use the containers for school lunches (for fear they'll be lost) and awkwardly trying to retrieve them after the neighbors' picnics without appearing rude.
Then a team of marketers devised a solution. Launched in 1999, GladWare is a line of lighter, less expensive plastic containers with a simple marketing proposition: Not as Good as Tupperware. GladWare won't withstand as many trips from freezer to microwave, and it's not meant to be bequeathed to your grandchildren. But at 50 or 75 cents a container, there's no violin music if it ends up in a cafeteria trash can or Barney next door "forgets" to return it. And consumers love it: today GladWare, made by Clorox, holds an $80 million slice of the $450 million retail container industry.
In a world where companies spend billions developing better mousetraps, there's growing recognition of a different breakthrough: the cheaper, mediocre mousetrap. It's a strategy called "disruptive innovation," and it's leading its creator, Prof. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, into the top ranks of management gurus. Christensen first set out his ideas in the 1997 best seller "The Innovator's Dilemma," which sold 500,000 copies in 10 languages. Now he's written "The Innovator's Solution" (with consultant Michael Raynor), which is climbing best-seller lists.
While the first book described the forces that lead companies to "overshoot" customer needs and leave themselves vulnerable to down-market competition, "Solution" teaches companies to use those forces to their advantage--to become the hunter instead of the prey. The books are turning Christensen into a huge draw on the corporate lecture circuit. His most recent seminar quickly sold out 160 seats--at $2,000 a ticket.
Christensen is an unlikely managerial rock star. The former Rhodes scholar, who's 6 feet 8 and a devout Mormon, spent the 1980s running a start-up industrial-ceramics company, and he wondered why his small firm could cause fits for bigger rivals. In 1989, nearing 40 and with five children, he joined Harvard's doctoral program. "It was very risky," he says, but jumping into academia in midlife had advantages. "I had a lot of questions that were relevant to the world that managers lived in."
To find answers, he spent the early 1990s studying the history of unsexy industries like disc drives and earth excavators. Wherever he looked, he saw established players being toppled by upstarts whose inferior products slowly crept up-market, and from those examples he drew larger lessons. "I think God blessed me with an ability to see beyond the industry-specific situation, to be able to say that disc drives aren't different from excavators or Honda motorcycles--that the phenomenon isn't industry- or product-specific, but in the forces that act upon the managers."
It's a slightly different approach from the one that's fueled a generation of successful business books, from Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's "In Search of Excellence" (1982) to Jim Collins's "Built to Last" (1994) and "Good to Great" (2001). Those titles dissect companies that exhibit an attribute--long-term financial success, say--and then describe the behaviors they use to achieve that result. Christensen's work feels more akin to physics, as he explains how …