Clayton Christensen’s website declares him to be “The World’s Top Management Thinker.” And judging by accolades, position (Harvard Business School), and books, that may well be the case. His (great) first book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” published in 1997, is widely-admired. In fact the Economist in 2011 named it as one of the six most important books about business ever written.
Which is why Jill Lepore’s, June 23, 2014, New Yorker piece attacking “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” was so intriguing. Prof. Lepore, also at Harvard (she’s a historian), writes:
“The Innovator’s Dilemma” consists of a set of handpicked case studies, beginning with the disk-drive industry, which was the subject of Christensen’s doctoral thesis, in 1992. “Nowhere in the history of business has there been an industry like disk drives,” Christensen writes, which makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries …
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.
To summarize the debate, In a nutshell, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” argues that big successful companies put too much of a focus on current needs and fail to adapt to new technologies that will address future needs, and so those companies eventually fail (disrupted by the new startups). Prof. Lepore points out that several of the companies he says were disrupted by innovative upstarts, in fact survived, and several of his disrupters, in turn, didn’t make it.
Prof. Lepore would seem to be making a powerful case .. until one reads Prof. Christensen response in an interview with Business Week:
… 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.
Andrew Hill backs with Prof Christensen in the Financial Times:
Prof Christensen is no ideologue. He has developed his original idea, in a continuing and valuable attempt to understand how innovation works and how to realise its benefits. In the latest Harvard Business Review, he explains why strict adherence to financial measures of success drives investment away from the type of innovation that could increase jobs and growth.
The New Yorker article is a useful corrective for overzealous executives and consultants who took a 17-year-old idea and turned it into a religion. But complacent managers and smug strategists who think they can return to a golden age of known rivals and predictable markets should not take comfort from it.
That point is perhaps one of the positive outcomes of this debate, although it will be interesting to see Prof. Lepore’s response (or apology?)