Soapbox: Is ‘disruptive innovation’ a theory gone off the tracks?

[grow_thumb image=”” thumb_width=”200″ /]Having publicly stood as a huge fan of Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation, particularly the ‘broken circle of innovation’ as an explanation of our current economic stagnation (if not ‘stagflation’ which was a hallmark of my early adulthood and yes, now) and disruption in healthcare (even if it hasn’t started yet because it’s been sidetracked), this Editor was prepared to savage, demolish and otherwise lay waste to a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore (a Harvard professor of American History, for Pete’s sake).

Having read and digested the article, I am surprised in largely agreeing with Prof. Lepore. She brings forth certain weaknesses and concerns I had about the entire Weltanschauung of disruptive innovation, first as an overarching theory equivalent to Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is a veritable industry around disruptive innovation which she outlines, reminding me that hype of this type around any theory I find profoundly irritating because theories are just that–to be reality checked early and often, just like voting in the 1930s in Jersey City, New Jersey. Prof. Lepore then points out where fellow Harvard Prof. Christensen didn’t paint the complete picture (e.g. Bucyrus, US Steel) and–to me quite importantly–discounts external events and even aggressive, defensive business strategy (as Ron Hammerle’s Soapbox on sidetracked innovation pointed out). Many of Prof. Christensen’s acolytes ignore history (and business strategy) altogether in a near-religious form of Determinism-by-Innovation.

There is also another circle–a circular logic prevalent in Mr Christensen’s theories summarized aptly by Ms Lepore:

If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation.

Well, even Excel alerts you to one’s errors in circular formulas. Perhaps the history of disruptive innovation is ignored because it largely resembles David Bowie’s ‘always crashing in the same car’:  financial services’ sub-prime mortgages up to 2008, most of the internet woo-hoo prior to 2001, QR codes for retail, quadrophonic sound for audio….(Anyone other than me remember Talking Yellow Pages?)

Perhaps I’m reading a lot about the First World War, where the sunlit ever-upward aspirations of 1913 drowned in the rain and mud of trench warfare. 100 years on we still debate its causes. If WWI and WWII are not settled history, why should disruptive innovation be treated like Gospel?

Lately I’ve been disinclined to believe that innovation itself is a solution for anything, seeing how little of it has gained traction, and much of it superficial. To quote Ms Lepore:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth 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.

Another poisonous aspect of ‘being saved’ is if you are not one of the saved, you will be left behind in Hades without a tear. This weekend’s Stossel on Fox Business News brought another hectoring from many of his guests on ‘the New World’ of technology eliminating jobs and their arrogant attitude toward the collateral damage of low-skilled–and even high-skill–people, as their skills and knowledge are dispensable, disposable and not needed. An atmosphere of constant crisis and people who can’t buy your product is not a recipe for business success, winning friends or influencing people.

Perhaps we ought to be thinking less about disruption qua disruption, about driverless cars and wearables being too cool for our shoes, and more about how we apply it to our everyday lives with a minimum of disruption and a maximum of benefit. What was it that Hippocrates said about disease treatment? “To do good or to do no harm.”

The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong. (The New Yorker)

Round 2 on the raging debate. Hat tip to reader Tom Boyle.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.


  1. Tom Boyle

    I suggest you read Clay Christensen’s response:
    Not only does he suggest areas where Prof Lepore may have gotten her review wrong, he also vigorously defends the notion that his theory of disruptive innovation is not only incomplete but most definitely has gaps.
    As with most theories, even when evidence supports that the initial premise is correct, there is follow on research required to understand broader implications and nuances. After all, if it was a given, it would be “fact” not “theory.”

  2. Mike Fernandes

    An excellent commentary on Professor Lepore’s Disruption Machine. Especially the point on circular logic, which in my opinion, was not emphasized enough by Prof. Lepore.
    Karl Popper and Joseph Schumpeter would be amused.