A Death Knell For “Disruption”?

Jill Lepore has had enough of it:

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,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book, The Road to Reinvention, in which he argues that “fickle consumer trends, friction-free markets, and political unrest,” along with “dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and mind-numbing technology advances,” mean that the time has come to panic as you’ve never panicked before. …

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.

It’s not just an overused buzzword, she argues. In fact, the influential concept of “disruptive innovation” is probably bunk:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met. … The handpicked case study, which is [Innovator’s Dilemma author Clayton] Christensen’s method, is a notoriously weak foundation on which to build a theory.

Timothy B. Lee will hear nothing of the sort:

[T]he term “disruption” has often come hand in hand with a certain amount of hucksterism. People who have no connection to Christensen, many of whom don’t seem to even understand his theory, have declared everyone and everything to be disruptive. The problem has become so bad that that many intelligent people have begun writing it off as a meaningless buzzword. Yet Lepore’s nitpicking aside, Christensen’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. It’s impossible to talk about what’s happening to companies as diverse as Kodak, Microsoft, and the New York Times without the vocabulary and concepts Christensen developed. And while understanding the theory won’t solve all the problems these companies face, it will certainly allow them to make more thoughtful decisions than if they follow Lepore’s advice and write it off altogether.

Will Oremus has a measured approach:

Lepore’s piece largely succeeds in skewering the zaniest of the “disruptive innovation” zealots and highlighting the fallibility of their prophet and holy text. And her revisionist reading of Christensen’s book adds some important caveats to his model. Importantly, the “disruptors” don’t always win in the end, and in some cases established businesses might harm themselves more by overreacting than underreacting. It would also be a great service if Lepore’s story had the effect of making people stop and think before they throw around “disrupt” as a buzzword. That said, Lepore’s cherry-picked counterexamples don’t definitively overthrow Christensen’s theory any more than his own cherry-picked examples definitively prove it.

Drake Bennett wonders, “If the evidence is, in fact, more ambiguous, why have Christensen’s ideas proven so broadly popular?”

Some part of it is clearly the rise of the Internet. In the age of Uber and Craigslist, the idea certainly feels true (particularly to those, like journalists, whose business is feeling disrupted at the moment).  … Part of it, too, I’d argue, is that Christensen’s description of how the world works matches how Silicon Valley sees itself, and Silicon Valley has gotten a lot more culturally important. The disruption narrative is one in which the upstarts are the heroes. Their eventual victory over the established order is foreordained, and they are the force that moves society – or at least technology – forward, disruption by disruption. Starting a company holds the potential to be not only lucrative, but also revolutionary.

At the same time, Kevin Roose resents the way some use the term as an “all-purpose rhetorical bludgeon [to] distract us from the real issues with emergent products and companies”:

Frequently, when start-ups working in heavily regulated industries encounter resistance from lawmakers or industry overseers, the concept of disruption is invoked almost instinctively. “But we’re disruptive!” the start-up pleads. “How can you be against disruption?” The problem with this reaction is that it lumps all opposition to new technology into the same category – anti-progress Luddites protecting the status quo at the expense of innovation. In reality, motives differ widely. Maybe a flashy new biotech start-up is being opposed becuse regulators are in the pocket of Big Pharma. Or maybe the FDA is holding it up because the founder is a charlatan selling fake stem-cell treatments to children. When every new innovation is cast as disruptive, there’s no way to distinguish between legitimate opposition and mere protectionism.