On the use and abuse of disruption: Remembering Clayton Christensen

(Professor Clayton Christensen, who passed away at 67 on 23 January 2020, will undoubtedly be long remembered as one of the greatest business theorists of the modern age — perhaps rivaled only by Peter Drucker, whom Christensen praised and admired for \”teaching managers how to think.\” But as the outpouring of memorials testify (e.g., here, and the final 12 minutes of Robert Rose\’s podcast #226), Prof. Christensen\’s impact extends far beyond the academic analysis of business organizations. He was always teaching us — and, far more importantly, demonstrating to us by his own example — how to be better people — as colleagues, parents, friends, and thinkers. As Robert notes in the podcast, the answer to the question posed by the title of Christensen\’s 2010 book, How Will You Measure Your Life? does not concern money or fame or even your contribution to some lasting organizational success but rather to what extent you\’ve helped other people grow and evolve. In recognition of Prof. Christensen\’s impact on my own life (and career path, and approach to consulting), I\’d like to offer here my 2014 analysis of the controversy ignited by Jill Lepore\’s New Yorker article attacking Christensen\’s theory of disruptive innovation. The piece originally appeared under the title, \”Is Jill Lepore\’s Critique of Disruption Theory Really a \’Criminal Act of Dishonesty\’?\”)

The uproar has died down. Twitter searches for “Lepore” are again dominated by the antics of the one named Chris, the “Vine celebrity” and recently convicted felon. But the one named Jill (no relation, and she doesn’t even appear to have a Twitter account, so you can forget about Vine) has certainly made a big splash in the backyard pool of mid-summer media with “The Disruption Machine,” her cannonball salvo against Clayton Christensen and his theory of “disruptive innovation.” If the sound and the fury around Lepore’s New Yorker article are waning, it may be time to allocate the sorrow and the pity.

If the sound and the fury around Lepore’s New Yorker article are waning, it may be time to allocate the sorrow and the pity.

By popular vote, at least among the chattering classes, most of it falls on Christensen’s dark lapels. Paul Krugman called Lepore’s article “a careful takedown,” while Jonathan Rees, saying to hell with careful, climbed the rhetorical turnbuckle and praised Lepore’s “absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation.” Haydn Shaughnessy said Lepore “dismantled” Christensen’s theory. Chris Newfield titled his piece “Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation After the Lepore Critique,” as if surveying the prospects for Elliot Spitzer’s political career. Many were no doubt tempted by the facile reference to the emperor with no clothes; Anthony Leonard couldn’t resist.

The man, however, is not contrite. Indeed, Christensen’s rejoinder – delivered in the form of a phone interview with a Business Week journalist – is ill-tempered and ill-mannered. He refers to himself in the third person. He’s “mad” that “a woman of her stature” – Lepore is also a Harvard professor – “could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty – at Harvard of all places.” He hilariously asserts that Lepore should have just strolled across campus and had a chat about disruption theory. (Anyone who’s been to college, let alone taught at one, knows that is not how academics conduct arguments.) Clayton calls Lepore Jill so often and insistently that the reporter finally asks if they are acquainted. “I’ve never met her in my life,” he replies. Click.

Christensen hilariously asserts that Lepore should have just strolled across campus and had a chat about disruption theory.

Fortunately, Christensen’s outnumbered defenders offer a more measured response. Steve Denning begins with a back-handed compliment: “First of all, let’s give Lepore credit for writing with considerable brio and flair. As always, The New Yorker’s prose is literate and often funny, even when it’s talking total nonsense.” Ouch. But he then begins to patiently expose the multiple instances of nonsense.

“[L]et’s not confuse the diagnosis with the disease. Christensen and his theory of disruption didn’t cause the New York Times ad revenue stream to collapse, any more than cancer specialists cause cancer: understanding cancer and how to prevent it is a key task for health care, even if it’s not the whole story. Similarly understanding disruption and how to deal with it is a key task for management, even if it’s not the whole story. [. . .] The fact that the New York Times might eventually survive the collapse of its ad revenue stream, with a new modus operandi, doesn’t change the fact that massive disruption has already happened, any more than the continuing existence of General Motors [GM], US Steel [X], Seagate [STX], Dell and other firms that Christensen discusses means, as Lepore suggests, that disruption didn’t happen.”

Thomas Thurston, who has spent years compiling statistical analyses of business survival and failure, refutes Lepore’s claim that disruption theory in not predictive. In fact, in 3400 real-world cases studied by Thurston, disruption theory accurately predicted the outcome 84% of the time, with 99% statistical accuracy. “Lepore could be right about” the theory, Thurston concludes, “but the odds are literally over 500,000 times greater that, as a matter of fact, she’s just plain wrong.”

Michael Raynor’s exhaustive (and exhausting! – 5800+ words is probably more than Lepore deserves) analysis systematically refutes virtually every one of the points in her article. Raynor points out – as did Christensen between huffs and puffs in the Business Week interview – that Lepore’s “dismantling” of disruption is concerned almost exclusively with Christensen’s first book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” (1997). Since then, the theory has been extended, refined, optimized, and corrected. Christensen says, “Every one of the points that [Lepore] attempted to make have been addressed in a subsequent book or article.” David Skok’s response – delivered, in a poke-in-the-eye to the traditional journalism Lepore wants to defend, via fifteen Tweets – simply notes: “The examples cited by Lepore [to refute Christensen] are individual companies in snapshots in time. Disruption is a process.”

In the light of the facts, and in the context of twenty years of work on disruption theory, Lepore’s New Yorker article does not, and cannot, constitute an “absolutely devastating takedown.” More like a clever undergraduate’s derisive book review.

An “absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation”? Hardly. More like a clever undergraduate’s derisive book review.

But Lepore, finally, doesn’t care that much about Christensen, or his theory. (Except, as Steve Denning notes, insofar as she may be a proxy in the battle between Christensen and a third Harvard professor and business advisory heavyweight, Michael Porter.) She’s convinced the theory is flawed, but what’s most irritating is that it’s infected the minds and formed the habits of the young “upstarts who work at startups,” who hide their “profound anxiety about financial collapse” and “apocalyptic fear of global devastation” behind a sneer of disdain and a rabid desire to blow things up in order to aimlessly “change the world.” (Yes, you heard that right. In Lepore’s view, the disruptors are, basically, terrorists.)

So, no – unlike Chris, the Lepore named Jill is not a criminal. “The Disruption Machine” does not violate any statues. And yet, it is, arguably, “dishonest” in the way that it poses as a critique of Christensen’s disruption theory, when Lepore’s real targets are the sneaker-wearing, scooter-driving, office-sharing denizens of various silicon-based valleys, alleys, and roundabouts, who “sprawl on couches like Great Danes.” (A search string that reveals a surprisingly rich vein of images in Google.)

Lepore’s real targets are the sneaker-wearing, scooter-driving, office-sharing denizens of various silicon-based valleys, alleys, and roundabouts, who “sprawl on couches like Great Danes.”

And the piece is “criminal,” perhaps, in the very narrow perspective of Christensen’s and Lepore’s academic guild, in the way that it masquerades as a systematic critique of the mature and established theory of disruption on the basis of a few supposedly flawed examples in Christensen’s early work. It is ironic that fellow academics, such as Jonathan Rees and Chris Newfield, who, like Lepore, want to defend higher education from disruptive innovations such as online learning, are most eager to proclaim the “devastation” wrought by her severely deficient critique of disruption theory.

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