The Innovator's New Clothes: Is Disruption a Failed Model?

Clayton Christensen on Oct. 1, 2013, in New York Photograph by Peter Foley/Bloomberg

In a very smart, very critical essay in this week’s New Yorker on the ideas of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard historian Jill Lepore mentions, in passing—and in a context that would take a little while to explain—the disciplinary practices of Harvard’s first teacher, which included “thrashings with a stick of walnut said to have been ‘big enough to have killed a horse.’” That is an apt description of Lepore’s essay itself.

Clayton Christensen needs no introduction to a reader of a business website; the Harvard Business School professor’s theory of disruptive innovation has become management gospel. That theory, laid out in books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, holds that established, market-dominating companies are prone to being felled by upstarts precisely because they are established and market-dominating—cosseted by their dominance, they are loath to embrace new technologies and practices that would threaten their business model.

For Silicon Valley startups eager to unleash their innovative abilities on the world, the key is to find a market ripe for disruption and then be the agent of that disruption. For companies that don’t want to go the way of Pan Am and Wang Laboratories, the only way to avoid being disrupted is to disrupt oneself. Which is why disruptiveness—a quality once associated with children who couldn’t control themselves in school—has become the measuring stick of promising business ideas.

What Lepore does is actually look at some of the case studies Christensen used to build and bolster his theory: the disk drive industry, mechanical earth-movers, steel mills, and department stores. Close inspection, she argues, shows that there’s actually very little support for Christensen’s ideas there. Some of the companies he characterizes as upstarts had in fact been around for decades, and some of the dinosaurs that were allegedly fatally disrupted would continue to dominate their industry for years (in some cases still do). In the case of steel, Lepore points out that Christensen never mentions unions, which were a huge difference between the older firms and the newer companies whose “minimill” facilities he points to as the agent of disruption.

I reached out to Christensen, who is traveling and said he had not had a chance to read the Lepore essay carefully. When he does respond, I’ll update this post. He is not, though, the first writer of a best-selling business book to be accused of slapdash scholarship. Despite their claims of scientific rigor—the writer and former McKinsey consultant Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, claims to have discovered “the enduring physics of great organizations”—much of the literature relies on nothing more than anecdotes strung together. Often it consists of asking corporate executives why they think they have been so successful.

If the evidence is, in fact, more ambiguous, why have Christensen’s ideas proven so broadly popular? Some part of it is clearly the rise of the Internet. In the age of Uber and Craigslist, the idea certainly feels true (particularly to those, like journalists, whose business is feeling disrupted at the moment). Lepore makes a broader argument, that disruption as an explanation and a strategy is well-suited to our political and economic moment: Terrorists want to kill us, the weather is getting weird, the global financial system might melt down. “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror,” she writes. And it’s self-perpetuating: The more business executives go around trying to execute disruptive strategies, the more disruptive things get, only exacerbating the perceived need for even more disruptive strategies to keep up.

Part of it, too, I’d argue, is that Christensen’s description of how the world works matches how Silicon Valley sees itself, and Silicon Valley has gotten a lot more culturally important. The disruption narrative is one in which the upstarts are the heroes. Their eventual victory over the established order is foreordained, and they are the force that moves society—or at least technology—forward, disruption by disruption. Starting a company holds the potential to be not only lucrative, but also revolutionary.

The new tech wealthy have turned to philanthropy, bringing this mindset with them. Solving problems that have long bedeviled the political system—income and educational inequality—is simply a matter of disrupting the ossified bureaucracies that are holding it hostage. For a certain kind of person, after all, it’s fun to be disruptive, all the more so if you can tell yourself you’re doing it for everyone else’s good.

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