Among the advice I recently gave to a client as input to an innovation offsite was what seemed to me the almost too obvious: think in terms of sustaining versus disruptive innovation as advised by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma. This concept has become de rigueur for any firm interested in competing through innovation. So when, a few weeks later, an article by Jill Lapore called “The Disruption Machine” appeared in the New Yorker with the subtitle “What the gospel of innovation gets wrong,” I paid attention. Lapore contends that “Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to too little serious criticism.” She clearly intended to correct for this problem.
And she does not hold back: ”Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It is not more than that. It doesn’t explain change” and so on. She essentially says Christensen cherry-picked his cases and ignored counter examples and even some results within the companies he did talk about. Lapore goes further and asserts that investors in start-ups tell founders to be remorseless in their search for disruption, whether this is true, or more pertinently, the result of a theory of disruptive innovation, is certainly open for argument.
The critique certainly hit a nerve as people were quick to jump in on both sides of the debate. (Examples here, here and here.) Her argument isn’t that disruptive innovation doesn’t happen, but that it isn’t a predictor of a firm’s success or failure. Among people trying to compete in the marketplace, as opposed to academics arguing theory, this is not a pressing concern.
For a while the conventional wisdom on business innovation had switched from Christenson’s concept to that espoused in another popular business book, Blue Ocean Strategy. Its subtitle was also intended to encapsulate its contents: “How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant.” The rather forced metaphor was that the ocean was red with the blood spilled in competition and if you wanted to thrive as a company you needed to find some blue ocean – areas your competitors hadn’t gotten to yet. Innovation in this context wasn’t so much disruptive as it was creative. This strategy looks for new markets, not for ways to undermine existing markets. It has in common with disruptive innovation the need to experiment, “fail fast” and not be constrained by how things have been done to date. In fact these are critical practices for any firm that wants to make innovation an important strategic asset.
My advice to clients won’t change much in the wake of Lepore’s article except to make sure they heed the part of the message that says sustaining innovation is not to be ignored and paranoia about being disrupted shouldn’t drive your strategy or your ethics.