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Disruptive Innovation Debate

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 03, 2014
Updated: Friday, July 04, 2014
Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don't agree on much, and Lepore's sharply written assault on Christensen's theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.

In his 1997 book the Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen lays out his theory of disruptive innovation, which holds that products or services that begin simply and inexpensively at the bottom of market, often using new technology, can eventually displace those of established companies that seem to be doing all the right things to maintain their success.

The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management theorists, last year for the second time named Christensen the top "thought leader" in the world, and disruptive innovation has been one of the most widely celebrated ideas in modern business.

According to Lepore, the theory's celebration is one of its problems: she thinks it has escaped critical examination and been carelessly applied to explain too much. In her New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine," Lepore analyzes how we understand innovation and disruption. Every age has its theory of history, she writes. The eighteenth century had the idea of progress, the nineteenth had evolution, and the twentieth had growth and innovation. "Our era has disruption," she writes, "which despite its futurism is atavistic. It's a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation and shaky evidence." 

Innovation used to have negative connotations, she says, but the idea was redeemed by its use to describe bringing new products to market. Still, she writes, "The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspiration of enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt and you will be saved."

In his book, Christensen supports his theory with industrial case histories. Mainframe computer manufacturers were disrupted when they missed the market for personal computers. Mini steel mills disrupted the operations of big steel companies, and a healthy department store industry—the number of stores in U.S. plunged from 316 to fewer than 10—was disrupted by growth of discount stores. Lepore asserts that Christensen handpicked his examples, and she introduces evidence to challenge or complicate his much of his analysis. She notes, for instance, that companies and divisions that dominated the disc drive industry in the 1980s dominate today, despite facing disruption Christensen describes from makers of smaller hard drives .She also points out a high failure rate among would-be disruptive start ups.

In an interview with Drake Bennett at Bloomberg Business Week, Christensen agrees with Lepore that the word disruption has become a cliché. But agreement ends there. He calls her story "a criminal act of dishonesty." Slate's technology writer Will Oremus says that’s overstating his case, which is what he accuses Lepore of doing. Oremus concludes that Lepore's cherry picked examples don't overthrow Christensen's theory any more than Christensen's cherry-picked examples definitely prove it. In a piece in Forbes, Clark Gilbert, chief executive of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, vigorously defends Christensen’s theory and the scholarship behind it, as does business consultant John Hegel in his blog.

Salon's Andrew Leonard, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and New York Magazine's Kevin Roose, sympathize with Lepore's views with some caveats. Richard Feloni at Business Insider reviewed reactions, including tweets from Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft's Windows division, who suggests that both professors are right. He says disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it's still a useful theory.

What do disruptive innovation theory and its critique look like through a complexity lens? If you have thoughts on that, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Thank you Peter Jones, David Hurst and John Kenagy for your thoughts on disruption and innovation!

Peter Jones, PhD, of OCAD University in Toronto, addresses the issues raised by Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen in his blog post Reproduction of Disruption, How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture.

Reproduction of Disruption  

Business consultant and author David K. Hurst, BA, MBA  has written two parts of a three part post interpreting disruption from an ecological perspective. He comments, "With the continual emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs threatening to disrupt healthcare, it seems to me that the ecological/complex systems view is essential."

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part I]: Storm in a Modernist Teacup

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part II]: Ecological Transformation


See commentary of John Kenagy, MD, MBA, ScD, FACS  "Fireworks: The Disruption of Disruptive Innovation" at his m2s2 e club site.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  disruptive  innovation  news 

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