About as disruptive as it gets.

Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg

A Harvard Professor Doesn't Have a Monopoly on 'Disruption'

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Does Clayton Christensen own the word “disrupt”? The Harvard Business School professor certainly behaves as if he has a proprietary interest. This is from a new Harvard Business Review article, co-authored with Deloitte consultant Michael E. Raynor and HBS professor Rory McDonald, that has made a few headlines during the past week: 

Uber is clearly transforming the taxi business in the United States. But is it disrupting the taxi business?

 Well, here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of “disrupt.” 

: to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way : to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)

Uber has indisputably interrupted the normal activity of the taxi business, and is likely rendering it unable to continue in the normal way. According to standard English usage, then, it is disrupting the taxi business. Christensen, Raynor and McDonald, though, have other ideas: 

According to the theory, the answer is no. Uber’s financial and strategic achievements do not qualify the company as genuinely disruptive -- although the company is almost always described that way.

 By their taxonomy, an innovation is only disruptive if it starts in a “low-end foothold,” serving less-demanding customers, or a “new-market foothold,” which enables it to “turn nonconsumers into consumers.” They continue: 

Uber has gone in exactly the opposite direction: building a position in the mainstream market first and subsequently appealing to historically overlooked segments.

OK, fine, Uber doesn't fit the very specific model of innovation that Christensen outlined first in his 1995 HBR article with Joseph L. Bower, then in his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” then in his 2003 book with Raynor, “The Innovator’s Solution,” and in subsequent writings. 

As Don Sull of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains in a companion piece to Christensen & Co.’s article on HBR.org, Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation was one of several attempts by business-school scholars in the 1990s to explain “why established companies, like Polaroid or DEC, struggled to adapt to technological change despite ample resources, talented engineers, and admired leaders.” He doesn’t mention that McKinsey consultant Dick Foster addressed the same question in his 1986 book, “Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage.” 

What distinguished Christensen’s contribution from the others was, I think (I haven’t read all the research that Sull cites, so I don’t want to try to sound too authoritative), the elegantly methodical way in which he described how low-end technological innovations crept upstream, and the powerful phrase he chose to describe the process: “disruptive innovation.” As McKinsey’s Foster told me once with regard to his own word choices: “I will forever rue the day I didn’t call it ‘disruption.’” 

Now, though, Christensen seems to be regretting that he did call it disruption. There are lots of economic theories with names that are less expansive and less interesting than the phenomena they describe. “Efficiency wage” and “principal-agent model” are two that immediately spring to mind. The very power of “disruptive innovation,” on the other hand, leads people to use it in situations that don’t fit Christensen’s limited model of innovation and change. 

They’re not necessarily wrong to do so. In a now-infamous 2007 interview with Jena McGregor in Businessweek, Christensen had this to say about Apple’s  iPhone, which had just been introduced: 

The iPhone is a sustaining technology relative to Nokia. In other words, Apple is leaping ahead on the sustaining curve [by building a better phone]. But the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won't succeed with the iPhone. They've launched an innovation that the existing players in the industry are heavily motivated to beat: It's not [truly] disruptive. History speaks pretty loudly on that, that the probability of success is going to be limited.

Actually, the iPhone combined a lot of existing elements to create a product that was completely new. The early purchasers all already had mobile phones and computers -- they weren’t “nonconsumers” -- but they didn’t have anything quite like the iPhone, and soon put it to all sorts of uses that I think we should be allowed to call disruptive. Maybe the iPhone wasn’t a Christensenian disruptive innovation (in the new HBR article, Christensen now allows that it was, because it disrupted the laptop business), but it was certainly an innovation that disrupted lots of existing businesses. 

Christensen’s desire to root out perceived misuses of the term disruption was clearly heightened last year by a takedown piece in the New Yorker magazine by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek’s Drake Bennett soon afterward, “The word is used to justify whatever anybody -- an entrepreneur or a college student -- wants to do.” 

But the word was around long before Clay Christensen. It’s a pretty good word, too, even though it surely gets overused these days. In any case, it isn't up to one business school professor to decide how it is used. Innovation just doesn’t work that way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net