Disruption theory and the Genteel Tradition
Disinterested scholar or scared Luddite?
Harvard history professor Jill Lepore has a lengthy article on Clayton Cramer’s theories of innovation and industry disruption.
These are the two best responses I’ve read:
THE DISRUPTION MACHINE
What the gospel of innovation gets wrong.
Lepore starts out strong. She criticizes Christensen for drawing simplistic conclusions from ambiguous case studies, for overstating the predictive power of his theory, and for ignoring contrary evidence.
Will Oremus: The New Yorker Thinks Disruptive Innovation Is a Myth
Steve Denning: The New Yorker: Battle Of The Strategy Titans
So far, so good. But even this portion of her critique is vulnerable to the Gelernter Rejoinder:
There is no doubt that Clayton Christensen has spent the last twenty years exploring some of the most important questions in modern business. Lepore implies that his work is fatuous; thousands of executives and investors disagree.
But if you allow carpers to shoo you away from every generalization before you have time to explore it, you have no hope of coming to grips with basic questions of modern America.
Harvard history professors are not in the business of writing narrow critiques of business fads and theories. Nor is the New Yorker in the business of publishing them. Lepore piece is supposed to do more than that. She hints that disruptive innovations are bad (likening them and the companies who try to implement them to terrorism and “packs of ravenous hyenas.”)
First of all, why single out Christensen’s work for its shaky intellectual foundations? The flaws of his case study based research are shared by most social science research. Unliked Freud, Christensen at least used real names in his case studies.
Recently, Christensen has written influential articles on the coming disruptions in higher education and journalism. Lepore, Harvard professor and New Yorker writer, has two oxen being gored by Christensen and his acolytes.
At this point 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.”
As Oremus notes, Lepore shifts “awkwardly” in mid-article “from questioning the legitimacy of Christensen’s theory to lamenting its impacts on established institutions that she holds dear:
That’s how a smart skeptic becomes a clever Luddite.
Articles like this probably should come with a warning label:
Over a century ago George Santayana mocked his Harvard colleagues for their cloistered existence and their blind faith that it could be preserved:
Content only appears to be disinterested scholarship. The writer has large financial interests and larger psychological investments in the material s/he discusses.
It looks like not much has changed in Cambridge.
Yet the smoke of trade and battle
Cannot quite be banished hence
And the air-line to Seattle
Whizzes just behind the fence.
Journalism has always been an industry in America. The owners wanted a profit and employees wanted higher wages. The rest is just self-serving PR flackery.
Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readersobligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors. Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.
Scott Shane of the New York Times disagrees that the newsroom represents a “heavyweight innovation team”.
The logic of disruptive innovation is the logic of the startup: establish a team of innovators, set a whiteboard under a blue sky, and never ask them to make a profit, because there needs to be a wall of separation between the people whose job is to come up with the best, smartest, and most creative and important ideas and the people whose job is to make money by selling stuff. Interestingly, a similar principle has existed, for more than a century, in the press. The “heavyweight innovation team”? That’s what journalists used to call the “newsroom.”
Doesn't sound like the work of Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs
A typical daily reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day.
Lepore a not so careful reader?
David Foster from the comments:
"The logic of disruptive innovation is the logic of the startup: establish a team of innovators, set a whiteboard under a blue sky, and never ask them to make a profit..'
This makes me wonder if she actually *read* Christensen's books. In The Innovator's Sollution, he specifically stated that In a venture dedicated to the introduction of a disruptive technology--whether a start-up business or a division of a larger company--early profitability is more important than early rapid growth. See my review of the book, here:
This John Kirk article is outstanding:
Christensen has addressed this point when he tells managers to ask "what job do consumers hire my product to do"? Often, that job has little to do with the features than managers consider important.