disrupting innovation theory
Some thoughts on The Disruption Machine. I only just read it, but apparently I’m late to the party. I can’t help but think it’s funny that writing up a review of an article three days before it’s publication counts as too late. (I think it arrived on Wednesday, I read it yesterday at lunch, and today I’m writing. I apologize for my tardiness.)
The article is apparently a rebuttal to The Innovator’s Dilemma, but I think it’s more a counterpoint to the current cult of disruption. Or as the subtitle puts it, “What the gospel of innovation gets wrong.” I think the point is not to prove Christensen wrong, but to demonstrate that the cult of disruption’s holy text is infallible. I myself haven’t read the book, just forum comments telling me what it’s about. Whether those commenters read the book or merely parrot the comments of others, I don’t know, but The Disruption Machine does appear to accurately capture the popular perception of disruption theory.
The main problem with the theory is that it doesn’t have much in the way of predictive power, and can only be applied in hindsight. The iPhone is of course the classic example. It didn’t merely iterate on the phone, it disrupted the personal computer. I’d say the true disruption from iPhones and other smart phones is to pocket cameras, which have all but disappeared. The iPhone itself is perhaps vulnerable to disruption from Android. Put another way, we can say the iPhone hasn’t succeeded, it just hasn’t failed yet. But I think the potential use for theories that qualify statements with “yet” is limited. Plus the fact that we apparently can’t tell what’s disrupting what until well after it’s happened.
I did enjoy some of the sharper points in the article, regarding disruption consultants, seminars, and even college degrees. ”... your city’s public-school district has adopted an Innovation Agenda, which has disrupted the education of every kid in the city.” Winner! The TD Bank counterexample is also interesting. If every other bank innovated by burying themselves in the disruptive debt obligations of the now, perhaps TD Bank was actually the disruptor by simply taking deposits and sticking to core banking? (Junk bonds are a good example of a true disruptive innovation.)
There are some good notes about the change from “progress” to “innovation”. Progress somehow got tangled up with weapons of mass destruction and killing machines. Innovation provided a new word, a safer word. Startups today pitch themselves by repeating Steve Jobs, “Do you want to change the world?” Should we perhaps ask instead if we’re making the world a better place? In the flight from “progress”, we have adopted an attitude of change solely for the sake of change.
Of course, if disruption is your thing, don’t let me keep you down. After all, the world is your joyster.
As noted at the top, I’m late to the party. Everybody else seems to be hating on Jill Lepore. Stratechery has a post critiquing disruption theory with links to some more. Some of the counter criticism is warranted, but I think the original article’s blending/confusion of the book, The Innovator’s Dillema, and its popular perception is deliberate. It’s a warning, “Do not walk away from this book with the same lessons that others have taken from it.” Christensen himself doesn’t appear too pleased. I can agree that the article spends too much time trying to debunk particular examples, but I don’t think the value of the article comes from a point by point rebuttal to the book.