Clay Christensen: In Defense of Rick Wagoner

Last Updated Apr 9, 2009 11:22 AM EDT

Not many folks have rushed to the defense of Rick Wagoner, the GM CEO recently forced out by the White House as a condition of receiving bailout funds.

But now Wagoner has a very powerful voice speaking his praises, and disagreeing with the Obama administration's decision to show him the door. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, the author of the theory of disruptive innovation, says Wagoner got a raw deal.

In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, The Past and Future of General Motors, Christensen writes:

"They have cast aside a remarkable executive who already has presided successfully over many of the most difficult elements of the rescue of General Motors in a way that is rare in the history of business."

The piece includes Christensen's take on how Detroit was "disrupted," starting in the 1960s, by attacks on its low end models by the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Honda. As GM retreated upmarket to focus on higher-end, higher profit models, the Asian companies marched up with them, with Toyota eventually launching the popular Infiniti luxury vehicle.

Wagoner, says Christensen, understood much more than his predecessors that disruption comes from below and was retooling the giant car maker to respond.

"General Motors, like Cisco, began several years ago to focus much of its innovation spending on the small-car end of its line-up, so that it now has more models that yield over 30 mpg than any other company in the world," Christensen writes. "For the last five years the quality of its cars has been comparable to that of its Japanese attackers. The second and third generations of its all-electric Chevrolet Volt, if the company pursues its present plans, are poised to revolutionize the way we get around within our communities. Wagoner and his team have built an enviable position as the largest foreign auto maker in China -- which is the world's largest growth market, and the platform from which the next disruptive attack on the world auto industry will be launched."
What think you? Did Wagoner unjustly lose his job as a sacrificial lamb? Did President Obama just fire the best man for the job?
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.