Disruptive Innovation in the Eye of a Storm

Stephen DeAngelis

June 24, 2014

Over the years, I have periodically referred to the business and educational theories of Clayton Christensen, a renowned Harvard Business School professor. Probably the most famous concept introduced by Christensen is disruptive innovation, which he included in his first best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Many business people consider disruptive innovation a fact not a theory. Enter Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who has started an internecine battle at Harvard by dissing Christensen’s work surrounding disruptive innovation. The first shot of the battle was fired when Lepore published an article in The New Yorker. “Ever since ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted,” she writes. “There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.” [“The Disruption Machine,” 23 June 2014 issue] All of this talk about disruption appears to have been just too much for Lepore to take. Surprisingly, Christensen agrees with her. He told Drake Bennett, “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.” [“Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 20 June 2014]

But supporting Christensen was not what was on Lepore’s mind. She lashes out at Christensen. “Much more disruption, we are told, lies ahead,” she writes. “Christensen has co-written books urging disruptive innovation in higher education (‘The Innovative University’), public schools (‘Disrupting Class’), and health care (‘The Innovator’s Prescription’). His acolytes and imitators, including no small number of hucksters, have called for the disruption of more or less everything else.” Her attack continues:

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. … Our era has disruption, 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. … 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. … Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable.”

As you might imagine, Christensen didn’t take kindly to being accused of poor scholarship and shoddy thinking. “In order to discredit me,” he told Bennett, “Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways. In fact, every one — every one — of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty — at Harvard, of all places. … 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.” For anyone interested in high drama, the exchange between Lepore and Christensen is delightful reading. One of the “proofs” to which Lepore points to demonstrate that Christensen’s theory is a fraud is the iPhone. When the iPhone was first introduced, Christensen indicated that his theory predicted that Apple would fail with its iPhone. Obviously, the iPhone didn’t fail. Christensen admits he was wrong. He told Bennett:

“There’s a piece of the puzzle that I did not understand. What I missed is that the smartphone was competing against the laptop disruptively. I framed it not as Apple is disrupting the laptop, but rather [the iPhone] is a sustaining innovation against Nokia. I just missed that. And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

I highly recommend that you read both articles and decide for yourself who comes out on top in the debate. Personally, I think Christensen emerges bloodied but unbowed. In the days following the publication of her article, several other pundits entered the fight. A number of people have rushed to Christensen’s defense. Frederick E. Allen writes, “Initial response to Lepore’s article is not all favorable.” [“Is Clayton Christensen’s ‘Disruptive Innovation’ a Myth?Forbes, 17 June 2013] He explains:

“Timothy B. Lee, at Vox.com, probably echoes the thinking of many students of contemporary industry when he writes, ‘Lepore is wrong to dismiss Christensen’s theory. … It’s impossible to talk about what’s happening to companies as diverse as Kodak, Microsoft, and the New York Times without the vocabulary and concepts Christensen developed.’ He adds that Lepore is ‘especially wrong to suggest that [Christensen’s theory] has little to say about the future of journalism.’ In fact, she seems to take disruption very seriously in the case of journalism, and to be terrified by it. … At Slate.com, Will Oremus writes that ‘Lepore’s cherry-picked counterexamples don’t definitively overthrow Christensen’s theory any more than his own cherry-picked examples definitively prove it. … If it really has no predictive power, though, I suppose Lepore is in luck: The Times — and by extension, her own employer — need pay no heed to Christensen’s warnings.’ Oremus also says, ‘I couldn’t help thinking that her thesis boils down to: ‘Disruptive innovation is a myth, and also please stop doing it to my industry.’”

Lepore, however, is not without supporters. “Let’s start at the beginning,” writes Henry Doss. “Disruption is not a business model, nor is it a way of doing business, nor is it something that can be planned or controlled. It is something that happens. And the idea that a business or any organization can mindfully — intentionally — disrupt itself, and control the outcomes from that disruption, is simply foolish.” [“Disruptive Innovation Is Nonsense,” Forbes, 19 June 2014] Doss doesn’t deny that disruptions occur. He just doesn’t believe that you can predict when they will occur or deliberately trigger a disruption. He explains his thinking this way:

“So, disruption – which seems an obvious, observable historical fact – would seem not to lend itself to planning, nor to profitable harvesting, except post hoc. And post hoc is sometimes a bit late for forecasting, and a bit wobbly as a business model. Or strategy. Or tool. The refutation of the idea of planned disruption is contained in the tautology of the word itself. Disruption, if planned, is not disruption. Disruption, if unplanned, is … well, unplanned. This leads to an obvious question: What is all this debate about disruption about? And is the debate even worth having if in fact disruption is a phenomenon of complex systems, but not one that is manipulable?”

Christensen, obviously, believes there is value in the theory of disruption (and not just as an historical explanation). He also admits that there is a lot about the theory that needs to be worked on and understood. He told Bennett, that off the top of his head he could list “10 or 15 problems with the theory of disruption that truly need to be addressed and understood. I could list all kinds of problems that we still need to resolve, because a theory is developed in a process, not an event.” Although the discussion appears personal and intimate, Christensen admits that he and Lepore have never met. Christensen admires Lepore’s writing skills if not her scholarship. He ended his interview with Bennett by inviting her to join him. “If she’s interested and wants to help me — she’s just an extraordinary writer — and if she’s interested in the theory or its impact, I mean, come over! I would love to have you openly invite her to come do this, if she’s interested.” Let’s hope the two of them get together!