The Age of Disruption

DisruptionThe week the Spanish National Football teamLa Rojahas been opprobriously dethroned during Brazil World Cup’s opening round, and New Yorker has published a furious critique of Christensen’s innovator’s Dilemma.

Jill Lepore starts her article with a more than welcome mockery of the overuse of the word disruption. Some of us are already tired of hearing people talk about disruption in such a pompous and, usually, unknowing way:

Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,”

After flexing her muscles, Lepore opens fire. She says that most big ideas have loud critics but not disruption, and she set herself to the task, an all-out attack on Christensen’s theory. Poor Christensen! Jill, I think you have gone too far. For all its potential flaws, disruption provides an incredibly appealing narrative for large enterprise parsimony.

What I like more of Lepore’s attack is her use of a half naturalistic, half apocalyptic backdrop.

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas (…) Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

To be fair, I agree with Jill that a flavour of dystopia permeates Christensen’s disruption, putting the theory on a par with Hollywood’s science fiction scripts.

Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history.

Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end.

The redemption of innovation began in 1939, when the economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his landmark study of business cycles, used the word to mean bringing new products to market,

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The hard allegations, with a few ad hominen arguments:

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” consists of a set of handpicked case studies,

Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable.

The theory of disruption is meant to be predictive. On March 10, 2000, Christensen launched a $3.8-million Disruptive Growth Fund, which he managed with Neil Eisner, a broker in St. Louis. Christensen drew on his theory to select stocks. Less than a year later, the fund was quietly liquidated.

In 2007, Christensen told Business Week that “the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,” adding, “History speaks pretty loudly on that.”

And finally, the death-blow:

Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt.

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

Christensen hasn’t responded in writing to the essay, but Business Week has come out in his defence with an edited interview in which Christensen hardly manage to counter-attack.

Intellectual blood is all over the place. Jill Lepore (48) has seen an opportunity to put Clayton Christensen (62) in check. And I would not recommend him to hire Vicente del Bosque64 next December and manager of one of the oldest squads in the World Cupas a coach to prepare for a next round. Age seems even more powerful than disruption… at least, for the time being!

Yes, getting old is a bad deal.




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