Soapbox Round 2: ‘disruptive innovation’ debate disrupts ‘the chattering classes’

click to enlargeIt’s a Blackboard Jungle out there. Clayton Christensen rebuts Jill Lepore on most–but not all–of her views on his theory of disruptive innovation [TTA 24 June] aired in a New Yorker cover story. The forum is a follow up interview (20 June) with BusinessWeek. (Hat tip to Tom Boyle commenting on the original Soapbox. Also see a just-released HBR video interview, link below.)

Your Editor agrees with his point that his theories have been developed and updated far beyond his first (1997) book, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, the only one she refers to.  (Similarly, I am most familiar with ‘The Innovator’s Prescription’ of 2008, but we’ve commented on his more recent relevant work, readily searchable here.) This is, unfortunately, her argument’s major flaw. It is akin to ceasing your review of WWII history with A.J.P. Taylor and Cornelius Ryan; as fine foundationally as they are, the scholarship and strategic debates will extend far beyond our lifetimes.

Mr Christensen in his rebuttal is appealingly modest in bringing up where he got it wrong (the iPhone), where his model has gone off (in 2002, a mathematician from Tuck demonstrating the causal mechanism as incorrect to that point) and that he still sees problems with the theory. Moreover, her strongest point is one he agrees with:

Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.

But then he gets a mite testy. “I’m just stunned that any honest scholar would have done what she did to disparage the person and the theory. She [appears to have] only read one book at the beginning in the naive belief that the end comes out at the beginning.” Somewhat beside the point, Mr Bennett (the interviewer) points out that Mr Christensen refers to Ms Lepore as ‘Jill’ without knowing her, and points out that he ‘third-persons’ himself more than once. But to this Editor, that scoring is an ancillary point.

He also makes an important point that “[Disruptive innovation] is not a theory about survivability.” US Steel survived in the crease at the top end of the market. Seagate’s still making hard drives. Disruption doesn’t mean, contrary to her POV, that the legacy companies are destroyed. Anyone who’s observed the ‘legacy airlines’ see they are still around, vastly changed, and the deregulation upstarts are, for the most part (except Southwest–JetBlue is post-deregulation) knocked out or merged out of existence.

One wonders, in concert with Mr Christensen, why Ms Lepore, a fellow Harvard professor (albeit in different disciplines and campuses about 15 minutes distant), didn’t just ring him up and ask  ‘Hey Clay, I’m writing an article based on your theories, I really need to know more beyond this dog-eared book because I gotta tell ya….’ Conversely, before he interviewed with Drake Bennett of BusinessWeek, why didn’t he call her and say ‘Yo Jill, I think you’ve got both the theory and me wrong. Let’s meet up, I’ll buy sandwiches and coffee, and I’ll show you why’.

Ah, the egos of academia!

Also: Harvard Business Review video response where Mr Christensen surprisingly regrets using ‘disruption’ in naming the theory. “[The choice of] the word ‘disruption was a mistake I made 20 years ago. And I never thought about the word ‘disruption’ in the English language has so many connotations that people would then flexibly use an idea, twist it and use it to justify whatever they want to do in the first place.” Another significant point was only alluded to in the BW interview: the evolution of the theory has been driven by examining the anomalies; his classes are about what the theory can’t explain.

Related reading: Will Oremus in Slate summarizes the article amusingly. “Lepore’s piece largely succeeds in skewering the zaniest of the “disruptive innovation” zealots and highlighting the fallibility of their prophet and holy text.” Robert Samuelson in the WaPo dubs it a ‘food fight’ and calls down a pox on both their houses. Andrew Leonard in Salon in agreeing with Ms Lepore, ‘afflicts the comfortable’ with populist points vs Silicon Valley Moguls’ political and financial power. Richard Feloni in Business Insider does a typically fine BI round up of commentaries less opinion. The last word is from Kevin Roose in New York who further skewers ‘disrupt’ as a buzzword (just drop it), points out that most touted ‘disruptive’ companies don’t meet the standards (ZocDoc, does that smart?–Ed.), and slams the ‘endless droning on about it’. ” The only way to assess the effects of new technologies is to cut the pretense, get rid of the red herrings, and think carefully about what’s really at stake.” Amen.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

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