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
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.
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."
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
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
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.
Leonard, New York Times columnist
Krugman, and New York
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.