Disrupting the disruption machine

Harvard historian Jill Lepore attempted a takedown of Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruption in “The Disruption Machine”, the June 23rd cover story for The New Yorker. The blogosphere has been atwitter ever since. In large part, her criticism in misguided and the theory still fits the worlds of business and technology.

Salon reported the following apparent tweet from Marc Andreessen (not to be found on his account currently): “Why hasn’t anyone invented a robot that will write anti-technology essays for East Coast literary magazines? C’mon, let’s get on it!”

Along with Salon’s laudatory take on Lepore’s piece, Slate’s Will Oremus offered a Cliff Notes summary of the piece. Bloomberg Businessweek caught up with Christensen, who answered questions in rebuttal. Oremus offered his spin on the rebuttal, and a former student of Christensen weighed in at Forbes.

Lepore’s case against Christensen

Lepore opens her case by highlighting some apparent limits to or sloppiness in the examples Christensen used in his foundational The Innovator’s Dilemma, first published in 1997, and claimed that his work collapsed under such scrutiny because it was based on inaccurate anecdotal evidence. (Christensen has countered that such data has been further explained or corrected in his subsequent publications.)

More than anecdotal evidence

Was some of this data forced to fit the point that the ‘laws’ Christensen identified as universal? Perhaps. But it is erroneous to state that his theory has been built on anecdotal evidence to start. Sure, he attributes his theory to his analysis of the disk drive market, but he also, footnote by footnote, correctly credits his colleagues with having previously detailed many underlying tenets of disruption theory.

Among those so credited by Christensen are the following:

  • fellow Harvard Business School professor Joe Bower with identifying the critical role of existing customers in resource allocation,
  • Stanford business professor Robert Burgelman for recognizing the issue of finding beta test sites beyond customers’ existing usage,
  • former McKinsey director and senior partner Richard Foster for having a decade earlier described Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage, and
  • Kim Clark, former dean of HBS and current president of BYU-Idaho, for detailing how organizational structure, such as component-level design teams, can limit the scope of innovation within a company.

Christensen credits himself with making some contributions on the importance of value networks, and of course he put the pieces together and coined ‘disruption’ as a term to describe the overall dynamic.

Disruption doesn’t guarantee failure

Beyond the anecdotal quibbles, Lepore takes some questionable shots at disruption theory based on some industry incumbents surviving and thriving in the years beyond suffering a disruptive challenge. Christensen counters by, for example, noting the segments of the steel market that the established firms have vacated to this day. Moreover, from his initial book on the subject, Christensen has devoted at least equal efforts to listing the steps by which a firm can transcend the challenge of disruptive technologies and new competitors. And, he has repeatedly acknowledged the substantial advantage that established firms have in developing sustaining technologies within their markets.

Lepore is on firmer ground when bemoaning the overuse and misuse of disruption theory. Christensen and his many co-authors are not the only ones who have sold books, research and consulting, good and bad, based on the code words and underlying premise of the theory. Such are the dues of rampant success.

Is disruption theory true?

Disruption theory has been a success because it rings true. Many of the underlying tenets were known by anyone in technology or a technology-intensive business, and had been taught in business school before Christensen was a student at HBS. Established players resist entering new markets with lower price points to avoid cannibalizing their sales or profits. Challengers often use new technology to offer lower-priced products with new benefits, and that technology in time may allow them to provide superior products to traditional markets. Within the tech world, observers from both the vendor and enterprise worlds can readily point to examples of technology disruption at work.

Does the theory hold beyond technology markets and business?

Disruption theory has been popularized beyond the tech sector to those areas being impacted by technology change. Entertainment and publishing are only two industries where the dynamic has been impactful. And Andreessen may have been onto something: as Oremus has noted, it appears that some of Lepore’s ire may be due to her resentment of how technology has challenged traditional publishers (such as The New Yorker).

Christensen and his collaborators have taken the theory to realms beyond the business world. Disrupting Class, for example, looks at disruption in education. This treatment is less successful than his work for the business world, not because there is any less disruption in progress, which he well demonstrates with the advance of online/distance learning, but because the theories he borrows from educational experts are less empirically sound than those he takes from his business colleagues. Moreover, he makes a misguided effort to show that public schools have been wildly successful in a traditional mission that has been evolving since our country’s founding. Still, the progression of online learning—and resistance thereof—is sufficient to make his case for disruption in education.

Disruptive theory in philosophy and the future?

Does disruptive theory provide suitable explanation for the nature of humanity, the world, history, and our larger future? If it is being applied to academic frameworks for understanding the philosophy of all disciplines—Darwin, Marx, Freud and Christensen?—then Professor Lepore has a legitimate beef. Her issue, however, should not be with Christensen, but rather with the humanities professors who would stretch their case.

As to the future, Lepore fairly pointed to the failure of Christensen’s disruptive technology investment fund to show that the possession of a theory does not guarantee clarity on the future and investing success. (How else could economists be such notoriously poor investors?) However, she hasn’t demonstrated that a handy framework for understanding how innovation works in the business world has been without use in the recent past—and won’t be of use in the future.