Jill Lepore, author, staff writer at The New Yorker, and Harvard professor of American History has created a little storm, which thanks to her New Yorker pulpit, has not been contained within the academic class. She has dared to challenge every single bit of her fellow Harvard colleague, Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation: ‘The Disruption Machine. What the gospel of innovation gets wrong’
Here is one of her gems:
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.
Mr. Christensen is not amused and calls Lepore’s piece ‘A criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.’ Note the ‘of all places’, to remind us, the rest of the mortals, that we inhabit ‘the other places’.
Lepore is bright and razor sharp. Christensen can’t believe that his empire of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ (and it is an academic, consulting, publishing, cult empire) can be challenged. Almost nobody has done it so far.
Regardless of the academic and historical scrutiny, and suspecting that the pin-pong will go on for a bit, (as we are used to seeing in ‘the other places’), one thing is at the core of the issue: the absurd overuse, ubiquitous utilization of the word ‘disruptive’, making it overworked, trying, even exhausting. It has been used to explain everything. If you used to go to the cafeteria for lunch and now you get a sandwich from a newly installed vending machine, chances are somebody will call this ‘disruptive’ (the vendors, the decision, the policy) even if the only real disruption is in your stomach and your taste. ‘Disruptive’ has taken over a great deal of the airtime in the managerial sphere. It’s now a word for all seasons.
The reality is that you will find a spectrum of uses. The ones who say Skype is a disruptive technology (accurate), the ones who call disruptive to may forms of change (they may or may not be seriously disruptive) and the ones of the type of the vending machine above. Kevin Rose of The New York Times begs us to put a stop to this in his article: ‘Let’s All Stop Saying ‘Disrupt’ Right This Instant.’ As you can see some people are desperate. Jim Naughton of The Oberver/The Guardian, also seems distressed: ‘Clayton M Christensen’s theory of ‘disruption’ has been debunked. Can we all move on now, please?’ Although there is no single line is his article where he explains why ‘it has been debunked’.
I am personally Marktwainian here and I do think that the death of Disruptive Innovation has been largely exaggerated. What we are desperate for, is the end of its use as a cliché that ‘explains everything’.
In 2008, I myself, wrote a book entitled ‘Disruptive Ideas’ but (Thank God!) I gave a definition in the first pages: ‘Disruptive [management] ideas are those that have the capacity to create significant impact on the organisation by challenging standard management practices. They share the following characteristics:
They are simple.
There is a total disproportion between their simplicity and their potential to impact on and transform the life of organisations.
They can be implemented now.
You can implement them at little or no cost.
They are most likely to be contrarian.
They are also most likely to be counterintuitive.
They pose a high risk of being trivialised or dismissed.
They can spread virally within the organisation very easily.
You only need a few disruptive ideas to create big transformation without the need for a Big Change Management Programme. The impact of a combination of a few is just like dynamite’.
And we run an Accelerator based in those 30 ideas of the book. No apologies! I’ve got my definition up front.
It’s clear that Language Takeover is a feature of management thinking. The warnings about ‘Disruption’ are timely and sound. That’s far form writing the death certificate of the concept. But please Mr. Christensen and Ms. Lepore, do continue the ping-pong for a bit longer. There are aliens outside of Planet Harvard who appreciate the play.