Disrupting Disruptive Innovation

DrewCM's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Jun 26, 2014

In case you missed, this past week was a little…disrupted (yeah, I said it)…in the world of innovation. Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and staff writer at The New Yorker wrote a piece which was less-than-glowing about disruptive innovation. To call it a tear down might be over-selling it, but only just. At the least it was another kind of PDA (public display of animosity).

The article in the Annals of Enterprise section of the magazine titled, The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong begins by approaching the pervasiveness of Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation in the context of strategy theory by comparing and contrasting with the work of Michael Porter (whose original “What is Strategy” article for Harvard Business Review still holds up nearly twenty years after it’s publication). From there the piece works itself into a lather. I won’t detail it here, but it is worth reading for today’s chat.

There are two great responses also worth reviewing.

The first is by Steve Denning, a former Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank and current a contributor at Forbes.com, not to mention a Business Innovation Factory Storyteller from the first BIF. He rightly says, “since real issues are at stake, issues that have a bearing on our prosperity, both now and in the future, it’s worth taking the trouble to sort out what, if anything, is sensible in Lepore’s diatribe and what’s not.”

The other piece is an interview by Drake Bennett at Bloomberg BusinessWeek with Christensen himself. As Bennett notes, Christensen is “consistently described by those who know him as a generous and thoughtful and upbeat person, he is also capable of fury.” A fury that is revealed in part in the hour long interview. There is no fury like that of a misunderstood theorist.

These kinds of public battles are not new. What is new is that the public platform for a challenge like this, focused on a concept fundamental to the current practice of innovation, has meant that we are in a position to collaboratively wrestle with a core concept in real time. In the interests of keeping this provocative situation a cause for provocation and intense discourse, and not a basis for attack. Let’s keep our intellectual hands where we can see them and no punching below the belt. (Or, if you are more partial to MMA, none of these, please.)

Some questions to consider:

  1. How much do you agree or disagree with Lepore’s position? Why?
  2. What has been your experience of disruptive innovation?
  3. Where does disruption fit in the innovation causal chain, is it an input or a consequence? Why?
  4. How do you value disruptive innovation as a concept and as a practice?


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