Drama in Academia This Week… Just How Important Is Disruptive Innovation?

Are we ready for a new twist on reality TV? What if we moved benign academic tussles to a new full-contact arena? We could call it the “Ph.D. Cage Match.” Not likely but I have to admit truthfully that it has been a little exciting watching this battle of words brewing between two Harvard academics. Jill Lepore (a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and Harvard Professor of American History) and Clay Christensen (a Harvard Professor of Business Administration and the reigning godfather of the modern innovation movement) have been publicly duking it out over their disagreement on Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.”

[This post was originally published on June 24th in LinkedIn – see Drama in Academia This Week.]

In a recent cover story article (The Disruption Machine) for The New Yorker, Lepore takes aim at Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation as nothing more than a theory of why companies fail and citing that it lacks little predictive value. Christensen retorts with an interview for Bloomberg’s Businessweek where he suggests that Lepore committed a “criminal act of dishonesty” and “at Harvard of all places.” The follow up stories from Slate and others suggests that the whole escapade has regressed to an Ivory League version of calling call for an elementary school fight behind the local gas station. Unfortunately the back and forth name calling doesn’t paint the whole picture.

Innovation is not a cure-all for the ailing organization, like eating a healthy diet it can help the sickly but it is only one piece to a healthy lifestyle. Companies fail for many reasons and a deteriorating ability to drive disruptive innovation is just one possible reason. Pointing out an “innovative” company that has failed does not make disruptive innovation unimportant. The reason for Christensen’s success is that his message has resonated with millions of business practitioners who have observed the truth in his ideas. As startups, companies are quite familiar with risk taking, innovation, and the chances of failure but as the company grows their leaders begin to reward risk management over than risk taking. Eventually many organizations enter a wealth preservation mode where only incremental innovation survives.

Highlights from Lepore’s article in The New Yorker:

“Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” This is a false conclusion, an overreach, and a bit of academic hyperbole to say the least.

“Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with ‘fogy-ism,’ as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.” Here I think that Lepore has a point. Few companies are willing to even acknowledge their disruptive innovation failures let alone admit them in public so there is very little published in this area. I have previously post an article with data scientist Thomas Thurston on his data set of over 1000 corporate ventures from different companies in different industries. His data points to a 78% failure rate among new corporate ventures (see Connecting the Dots on Innovation).

“Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.” This is a draw – maybe Christensen and his team are promoting a bit of hyperbole of their own but every movement needs to have a mantra and as such this one seems pretty harmless.

As for Christensen’s rebuttal in Businessweek:

“And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways. In fact, every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.” This point should go to Christensen. I am not sure it was meant to be as “mean” as he makes it out to be but Lepore did seem equally contrived in her selection of rebuttal cases. In Christensen’s defense, a book can only ever hope to be a theory at a certain snapshot in time. There are going to be positive and negative influences to the theory after publication that it can’t possibly cover. As for other authors, Christensen seems no worse in his predictive accuracy. Just re-read Jim Collins’ Built to Last for a quick confirmation.

“If [Lepore] was actually interested in the theory and cared enough about it to walk 15 minutes to talk and let me know she’s doing this, I could have listed 10 or 15 problems with the theory of disruption that truly need to be addressed and understood. I could list all kinds of problems that we still need to resolve, because a theory is developed in a process, not an event.” Here in my opinion is the root of this entire confrontation. Drama sells and The New Yorker loves to create some occasional drama. If you look at what both parties are saying they are not nearly as far off as the headlines would have you believe (see the drama perpetuate in two Slate stories from June 17 and June 23).


I would have to give the match victory to Christensen but I do agree with Lepore on several of her points. Here is a brief summary of my takeaways from the first Ph.D. Cage Match:

  1. Disruption and disruptive innovation are overused – let’s push to be more on purpose with the language of growth and progress
  2. Let’s do more to study those companies who have thrived without being disruptive innovators. One in my backyard that comes to mind is General Mills a $33b slow growth company built on product line extensions.
  3. Let’s do more to study those companies who were disruptive innovators and still failed. What were the factors behind their failure?
  4. Drama sells. Maybe we need to be on purpose about adding some occasional drama to the discussion. I guarantee that far more people are talking and reading about the importance of disruptive innovation after The New Yorker article… including you!


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