Thanks to Jill Lepore at the New Yorker, a crack just appeared in the disruptive innovation paradigm. Just like when a rock pelts the windshield of your car and a hairline crack appears, I can only expect it to spread and get bigger.
(see my follow-up article, Debunking Disruptive Innovation for a detailed analysis of the role of disruptive innovation in business, academic theory, and business strategy)
Clayton Christensen is ranked the #1 business thinker in the world for a reason. His theory of disruptive innovation has become ingrained into business vernacular, business school curricula, and business strategies around the world. He’s the S#!t.
But if Jill Lapore at the the New Yorker got it right (and I think she got pretty close), the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t stand up to the test, and has sort of “run amok” in today’s business world. Here’s the oversimplified summary:
- The theory of disruptive innovation isn’t founded upon robust research, just a few anecdotal case example
- Although it’s about how one technology disrupts another, it’s been used as an argument for why whole industries like healthcare and education need to be reinvented – which ignores the fact that they’re complex social service systems run by human beings (vs. singular technologies that are ripe for disruption)
- Disruptive innovation has become synonymous with “progress” which makes it an ironclad defense for anyone who wants to argue for changing just about anything
- Christensen’s theory doesn’t forecast. It’s retrospective. It predicted that Apple’s iPhone would have failed. It clearly got that wrong.
Thanks to Christensen, the world embraces the concept of disruption as common sense. Who can argue that Netflix didn’t disrupt Blockbuster or the Internet and Wikipedia didn’t disrupt Encyclopedia Britannica? In the world of research, that’s called “face validity” – it make sense on the face of it, so the theory must be true.
But here’s the problem: Disruptive innovation has become business’ biggest paradigm.
Anyone familiar with “innovation” knows about “paradigms.” They’re mental models that contain unquestioned assumptions about how things work. These assumptions are accepted as truths – until they’re not.
The world is flat. The sun revolves around the earth. People get AIDS because God is punishing them for being gay. Paradigms have, and will always exist.
But they can also change.
The problem with the disruptive innovation paradigm is that it’s being applied to just about everything these days. For people like me, who have been living and breathing “innovation” for the last 20 years, just questioning the concept can feel like we’re tying our brain up in knots. But of course disruption is a natural part of life. But of course new ways of adding value will disrupt old ways of doing things. It’s hard to think about it any other way.
And that’s exactly why we should.
For many years I’ve been saying that disruptive innovation should NOT be part of your business strategy. Why? That’s not how it’s done. Big breakthroughs rarely happen by methodically laying out your “disruptive innovation project.” Few companies or people have the staying power, resources, or vision for that anyway.
In my book, Leapfrogging, I describe how companies like Apple, Google, Gatorade, Nabisco, OpenTable, and many others took steps to solve meaningful problems for customers – or lead customers to entirely new products or services that “felt right” for them to do (thus creating new “needs” in the market). And which were eventually recognized as being disruptive.
Disruptors rarely intend to disrupt. It’s a bi-product of doing something that feels meaningful and then following a path laden with uncertainty and unforeseen surprises. It’s not methodical. And, in my view, no theory (even the theory of disruptive innovation) has bottled up what really happens during the process.
I’m about to publish another article in FastCompany that further lays all this out and includes examples and alternative strategies for innovating. I’ll post it here soon.
For now, reply and let me know what you think. Is disruptive innovation a “paradigm” ripe for disruption itself? Or, it is really a universal law, perhaps the essence of “creative destruction?”