The Innovator’s New Clothes: Is Disruption a Failed Model?
“Clayton Christensen needs no introduction to a reader of a business website; the Harvard Business School professor’s theory of disruptive innovation has become management gospel. That theory, laid out in books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, holds that established, market-dominating companies are prone to being felled by upstarts precisely because they are established and market-dominating—cosseted by their dominance, they are loath to embrace new technologies and practices that would threaten their business model.
For Silicon Valley startups eager to unleash their innovative abilities on the world, the key is to find a market ripe for disruption and then be the agent of that disruption. For companies that don’t want to go the way of Pan Am and Wang Laboratories, the only way to avoid being disrupted is to disrupt oneself. Which is why disruptiveness—a quality once associated with children who couldn’t control themselves in school—has become the measuring stick of promising business ideas.
What Lepore does is actually look at some of the case studies Christensen used to build and bolster his theory: the disk drive industry, mechanical earth-movers, steel mills, and department stores. Close inspection, she argues, shows that there’s actually very little support for Christensen’s ideas there. Some of the companies he characterizes as upstarts had in fact been around for decades, and some of the dinosaurs that were allegedly fatally disrupted would continue to dominate their industry for years (in some cases still do). In the case of steel, Lepore points out that Christensen never mentions unions, which were a huge difference between the older firms and the newer companies whose “minimill” facilities he points to as the agent of disruption.
I reached out to Christensen, who is traveling and said he had not had a chance to read the Lepore essay carefully.”