The New Yorker's Takedown Of Disruptive Innovation Is Causing A Huge Stir
She challenges the father of the theory, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, who wrote the groundbreaking "The Innovator's Dilemma" in 1997.
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.
Lepore attempts to poke holes in many of the examples Christensen uses in his book. There's the example of tech hardware manufacturer Seagate delaying production in the '80s of smaller disk drives that could be used for portable computers as opposed to desktop computers, while upstart companies beat them to it. By Christensen's logic, she says, Seagate should have been finished; instead, it's now the world's biggest disk manufacturing company.
Lepore further highlights Christensen's predictions that have proved to be wrong - like his prediction that the iPhone would be a huge failure for Apple - and concludes that the theory of disruptive innovation shouldn't be taken as an accurate predictor of progress, and isn't all that helpful anyway.
After the article was published earlier this week, many influential leaders in the business and journalism communities quickly attacked or defended Lepore's thesis.
Legendary venture capitalist Marc Andreesen took to Twitter after reading the article to show why he thinks Lepore got too caught up in trying to disprove something. Here are some selections from his response (he numbered the posts to indicate they're all part of the same argument):
3/In tech, our *own* businesses are disrupted by technology change and new competitive entrants at whiplash-inducing rates.- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
4/It's shocking how quickly you can go from the hot disruptive upstart to the stodgy disrupted incumbent in tech--frequently within 5 years.- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
5/I've probably been on the receiving end of disruption 30 times in the last 20 years--almost as many times as I've been on the giving end.- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
6/Now, on the one hand, you might say, "How can people live like that?" ... what's wrong with a little stability?- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
7/But, what we see is: Frequent disruption is the handmaiden of rapid progress--and it's a blast to create and work amid rapid progress.- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
8/It's not just rapid progress of tech. It's also rapid grown of companies, and even better, rapid development of *people* & their talents.- Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 18, 2014
Vox's Timothy B. Lee thinks that sure, there are plenty of exceptions to the theory of disruption, Christensen has been wrong plenty of times, but that doesn't mean his theory needs to be tossed out. He writes:
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.
Slate's Will Oremus took a snarkier approach. He honed in on Lepore's argument that institutions like the New York Times should not feel they need to significantly adapt to beat sites like Buzzfeed. It's a position even journalism schools like Columbia have let go of for awhile now. Oremus writes:
At this point I couldn't help thinking that her thesis boils down to: "Disruptive innovation is a myth, and also please stop doing it to my industry."
Salon's Andrew Leonard came to Lepore's defense, saying that her essay is not an attack on businesspeople, but a critique of an out-of-control culture:
Lepore is not engaging in an anti-technology screed. She's training her artillery on the way Silicon Valley rationalizes its own behavior as some kind of natural law of progress.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman thinks that Lepore is right to point out that not all of the business world's greatest successes are disruptors, and takes her argument to its logical conclusion:
What's the most remarkable export success story out there? Surely it's Germany, which manages to be an export powerhouse despite very high labor costs. How do the Germans do it? Not by constantly coming out with revolutionary new products, but by producing very high quality goods for which people are willing to pay premium prices.
So here's a revolutionary thought: maybe we need to do less disruption and put more effort into doing whatever we do well.
New York magazine's Kevin Roose thinks that Lepore is right to point out that entrepreneurs' obsession with the word "disrupt" and the idea that the only important new companies are disruptive is silly. He thinks that Lepore's intense focus on this point is distracting her from real and very valuable disruptive companies, like Uber and AirBnB. Stop abusing the word, he writes - even get rid of it completely. But don't dismiss the theory:
The only way to assess the effects of new technologies is to cut the pretense, get rid of the red herrings, and think carefully about what's really at stake. Nothing bothers industry outsiders more than being hammered with meaningless rhetoric, and nothing will slow technological progress more than a refusal to have good-faith conversations with those in power.
Steven Sinfosky, former president of Microsoft's Windows division, went on Twitter to say that both Lepore and Christensen are right, and that Lepore's argument isn't actually new. She's right to point out the theory of disruption is just a theory with plenty of exceptions, he says, but it's a useful theory:
6/17 A theory like disruption affords you a framework for considering options and alternatives. It can only help. And help it does.- Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) June 17, 2014
11/17 Dissecting the anecdotes used to develop the framework is nothing new. We did that in the hallways in 1990's when the work was new.- Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) June 17, 2014
12/17 Screaming everything is a disruption is no value. Claiming new entry to a market always wins is provably false. Everything is grey.- Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) June 17, 2014
14/17 It is a shorthand for what you believe to be the strategic needs of the business or product.- Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) June 17, 2014
15/17 We know iphone/iOS disrupted whole stack. Just as we know internet disrupted so much. But not everything, always, exactly same way.- Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) June 17, 2014
Disclosure: Marc Andreessen is an investor in Business Insider.
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