Disrupting Innovative Game Changing Disruptors

Given our focus on “innovation” as one of our core editorial principles (we look for NewCos that are innovating in their chosen field), we’ve found the fracas over Jill Lepore’s What the gospel of innovation gets wrong fascinating.

Silicon Valley justifiably has the reputation as the world’s center of innovation, and Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, is arguably one of the Valley’s most esteemed patron saints. But Lepore’s New Yorker piece took sharp aim at Christensen’s oft-cited book, sparking a debate that continues to simmer around the Valley and well beyond.

“Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted,” Lepore writes. “A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up.”

Lepore goes on to question several of Christensen’s core proof points in the book. Since her piece was published, the Valley has come alive with debate over whether her “takedown” was accurate. To me, it matters less whether the academic points scored or missed the mark, but instead that the Valley is willing to debate the topic at all. Earlier this week I watched Marc Andreessen, certainly a looming disciple of Christensen’s thinking, on stage during a conference at Stanford. He admitted that the word “disruption” was overused – an acknowledgement of the debate that’s currently raging.

It took a week, but Christensen finally did respond, in an angry Businessweek interview. “Jill (broke) all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways,” he said. “This is a process, not an event. I’m just stunned that any honest scholar would have done what she did to disparage the person and the theory.”

“The person,” of course, is Christensen himself, and clearly he is distraught that another academic – and one from Harvard, Christensen’s home – would take aim at him in such an sensational manner. And he has a point. Christensen isn’t responsible for the world’s interpretation of his work – and it’s that interpretation for which Lepore saves her most pointed barbs. The fact is, new approaches to commerce, coupled with technology, does threaten traditional business models. Whether or not we’re tired of calling it “disruption” is beside the point.

As Bloomberg points out in one of scores of responses to the debate, “(Christensen’s) insight that firms may fail by listening to their customers and doing what they are best at was true, instantly plausible and shocking. The further idea that there’s no simple remedy — not because firms are stupid or lazy but because the trade-offs are so hard to strike — resonates powerfully with managers. In industry after industry, they face exactly the dilemma that Christensen described.” It’s a good sign that our business culture is so eager to debate the merits of our foundational literature. It’s healthy, it’s valuable, and it only strengthens our ecosystem. Next up – let’s question whether or not the “startup” is the best model for business success. Oh wait, we’re already doing that!