Clayton Christensen Demolishes Jill Lepore’s Critique of Disruptive Innovation

Last week, the New Yorker published Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s sharply worded critique of both Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation.  Some journalists piled on, further deriding “disruption zealots” and their leader, while others jumped to Christensen’s defense.  Meanwhile, Drake Bennet at Business Week decided to give Clay a call and ask him to respond to the surprisingly personal attack.  The result was a one hour phone conversation in which Clay completely demolished Lepore’s article, and made a pretty good argument that — at least in this particular case — she’s a shoddy researcher.  Incredibly — despite the fact that they have offices at Harvard about 15 minutes apart, Lapore has never even talked to Christensen:

Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.

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.

I’m just stunned that any honest scholar would have done what she did to disparage the person and the theory. She [appears to have] only read one book at the beginning in the naive belief that the end comes out at the beginning.

Read the whole thing.  I had the good fortune to attend a series of seminars by Clay Christensen last year, and he was one of the most thoughtful and intellectually careful speakers I have ever heard.  I wonder if Lepore ever actually listened to one his lectures — especially a live one where he answered questions and responded to comments.

Getting back to hyperventilating critiques of disruptive innovation, I don’t see what the fuss is all about.  Yes, it’s a term overused by people who don’t fully understand the concept; yes it doesn’t explain everything; yes, firms that are disrupted don’t necessarily fail completely; and yes, the theory’s predictions are often not actionable.  But that’s the whole point — disruptive innovations come out of a sea of bad ideas and mediocre technologies.  It’s extremely hard to recognize them when they first appear.  And incumbent firms by their very nature find it difficult — if not impossible –to respond because disruptive innovations will cannibalize existing products that are (at the moment) more profitable. Perhaps more important, disruptive innovations threaten the careers of incumbent employees.  Recognizing how hard it was to take action, Christensen called his first book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

A recommendation from the theory that is actionable, however, is for all of us to do a better job recognizing the growth potential and unanticipated value that can be created by upstart technologies.

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