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Gentle Giants: Life Lessons of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards

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Tomorrow the Tribeca Film Festival is hosting the Third Annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. This partnership has been the result of the efforts and participation of many, but behind it all has been Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen and Craig Hatkoff, one of the Festival's Co-Founders.

In 2000, I had the pleasure of first introducing Clay and Craig. At the time, I was a student of Clay's at Harvard and Craig was working on a new entrepreneurial venture that I thought fit well as an example of Clay's theory of disruptive innovation. At the time, Clay was a celebrated professor, well-known and regarded throughout Silicon Valley and the offices of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and I was fortunate to be one of his students.

Interestingly when his book The Innovators Dilemma was published in 1997, Businessweek didn't even include it on its list of top 15 business books of the year. Like so many of the products and technologies Clay has been known to study, the theory of disruptive innovation snuck up on many. By 1999, Forbes was profiling Clay and just how powerful a force he had become in shaping the thinking of CEOs throughout the world and in particular in the high-tech community. Of equal importance, in my mind, was their reference to his character, which they referred to as: "improbably gentle, with a soft voice and self-deprecating manner." (Note: I borrowed "Gentle Giants" from that article).

Three things strike me as particularly unique about the collaboration between Clay and Craig:

  1. The staying power of Clay's theories. Fifteen years later the reach and import of disruptive innovation has never been greater.
  2. The breadth of these theories and how far and wide they have been applied and embraced. Clay has applied disruptive innovation to health care and education among other areas. Craig is even exploring the implications for disruptive innovation in Religion!
  3. But above all else, is the shared belief that Craig and Clay have about the importance of morality and spirituality in life and business, and above all else taking the time to help others.

I always laugh when I hear someone say they have an hour meeting set with Craig. As his friends know, there is no such thing as an hour meeting with Craig... 90 minutes maybe, two hours, probably, three hours -- now we are talking. And while an entrepreneur and reformed financier, Craig is above all else a professor and mentor that rivals no other. My first business lesson came from Craig who at the age of 10 taught me how to use Basic to run a program to impute the compound interest on the $26 Native Americans earned from selling Manhattan to the Dutch. A discussion with Craig about almost any topic invariably connects in music, religion, YouTube, real estate finance, book publishing and increasingly the work of the disruptive innovators who have been awarded prizes at Tribeca and whose work has deeply influenced Craig and many others.

In an eerily similar manner, in July 2010 Clay wrote one of his most influential pieces about nothing at all to do on the surface with running a business -- rather it was an article intended to help his students use the theories they had studied in his class to help guide their life decisions. Clay's Harvard Business Review article "How Will You Measure Your Life" went on to become one of the most popular articles ever published on the HBR website.

In the article, Clay recounts how when he first met Andy Grove, Grove asked that Clay come to Intel and talk for 10 minutes about what his theory of disruptive innovation meant for Intel. Clay famously said, "sorry I can't do it. I need more time to explain how disruptive innovation has worked its way through other industries." Grove reluctantly acquiesced and after Clay explained how disruptive innovation had worked in the steel industry and elsewhere, Grove said "I got it. What it means for Intel is..." and then went on to articulate what would become the company's strategy for going to the bottom of the market to launch the Celeron processor.

I think this passion for teaching and helping is the one constant I have found among successful businesspeople, not just Craig and Clay, although they embody it to an unusually high degree. It's those at the tops of organizations who often spend the most time and go the furthest out of their way for people who touch their lives. (Earlier this week, I was struck by the story told by the CEO of one of the world's leading real estate firms. After a discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival about a film on the Detroit Fire Department, he stayed after the event to take the firefighters out into the evening.)

As we host the Third Annual Disruptive Innovation Awards at Tribeca tomorrow and honor an incredible group of disruptive innovators who have changed the worlds of business, technology, arts, and entertainment, I will be keeping in mind the overarching principles that Clay and Craig embody -- remembering how much we can learn from people outside our direct spheres and industries, the importance of learning "how to think" not just "what to think" and above all else the importance of taking the extra time to help others.

The 2012 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards hosted by NYU Stern School of Business and supported by Accenture will be live streamed on Friday April 27, 2012 beginning at 11am EST at www.tribecafilm.com