INNOVATE

The Theory of Disruptive Innovation Gets Disrupted

Is disruptive innovation something that happens in the real world? Or just a theory we're uniquely primed to accept? A New Yorker article argues for the latter.
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In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, writer Jill Lepore offers a scathing criticism of Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruption, couched in that genteel New Yorker-y language that makes everything seem so darn reasonable.

Christensen's theory of disruption, which he developed while a doctoral student at Harvard, holds that established companies fail because they are often displaced by newer ones that begin by innovating at the low end of the market. Christensen's theory gained widespread notice beginning in 1997, when Christensen published The Innovators Dilemma.

Lepore doesn't just say that the theory is wrong. She attacks the original research that gave rise to it in the first place, saying that Christensen hand-picked his examples and even then didn't do such a good job proving his point. Given that Christensen's dissertation led to an appointment at Harvard just three years after he was admitted as a student, and that it was presumably vetted by some pretty smart people, that's quite a claim.

In Lepore's piece, Christensen is not quoted, or asked to defend his work. That's sort of odd. Harvard Business School, where Christensen is based, is in Boston. Harvard University, where Lepore teaches, is in Cambridge. The two are not that far apart.

Lepore points out that the theory of disruptive innovation was not meant to be a theory of how companies succeed, nor proposed as a law of nature. It's simply a theory of how companies fail, and even within that limited sphere, Lepore says, it's not so impressive. The reason we're so drawn to it, she says, has more to do with our socio-historical circumstances than with the validity of the theory itself. Here's how she explains its appeal:

… the rhetoric of disruption--a language of panic, fear, asymmetry and disorder--calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up….Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerful, until you realize, but only after it's too late, that they're devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

What's worse, though, for entrepreneurs banking on a never-ending cycle of disruptive innovation, is that Christensen's research, as seen through Lepore's lens, seems deeply flawed.

Lepore picks apart a number of Christiansen's case studies, but his seminal example, Seagate Technologies, comes in for the worst beating. First, Lepore quotes Christensen himself, who wrote that "Nowhere in the history of business has there been an industry like disk drives." That, Lepore writes, "makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries."

Then the real work begins. Lepore points out numerous instances of what she considers Christensen's misjudgments or mistakes: the classification of Shugart Technologies as a "failed incumbent" in 1980; Christensen's declaration that it was "too late" for Seagate to start shipping a 3.5-inch disk drive until 1988, and his 'arbitrary' revenue cut-off for determining if a company is ultimately considered successful. Most revealing is that Seagate itself was not actually "felled by disruption," says Lepore. Between 1989 and 1990, its revenues doubled, to $2.4 billion, more than all of its competitors combined. In 1997, when Christensen published The Innovator's Dilemma, Seagate was the largest company in the disk-drive industry, with sales of $9 billion.

Lepore says that Bucyrus-Erie, a maker of excavators, likewise makes an unconvincing example. The company did not slide inexorably downhill after 1966, when a new type of excavator became more popular, she claims. "Between 1962 and 1979 Bucyrus's sales grew sevenfold and its profits grew twenty-five-fold," writes Lepore. "Was that so bad?" Similarly, she says, U.S. Steel was not simply "disrupted" by minimill technology--it suffered a massive labor action between 1986 and 1987, which she says Christensen ignores.

We can expect Christensen's followers to rebut Lepore, as they should, and to defend his reading of economic history. The cultural critique may be harder to overcome. It is entirely possible that, as a culture, we will not always occupy the mental foxhole that makes, as Lepore writes, a "theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, [and] an apocalyptic fear of global devastation," so uniquely appealing. Perhaps, then, a young Harvard student will come up with a theory of business success or failure based not on disruption but on rejuvenation or regeneration. At that point, a theory of disruptive innovation may seem as curious and outmoded as a 3.5 inch disk drive.

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Last updated: Jun 19, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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