The debate about "disruptive" innovation
Christensen based his book The Innovator's Dilemma on much of his PhD thesis work, and it's this research and the conclusions that he drew that Lepore calls into question. For many of us, The Innovator's Dilemma was and to some extent still is a seminal kind of book - one that defines a new way of thinking. Lepore calls into question a lot of the research Christensen uses to draw his conclusions, basically accusing him of "cherry picking" the industries and studies, and ignoring data that didn't meet his hypothesis. Further, she notes that in many of the industries he selected for review, where the initial leaders in the market were 'disrupted', many years later those leaders are still the leaders in their space. Was Christensen wrong, misguided or simply viewing the data in the best possible light? Or, should we ask another question: did Christensen set out to define a science, and a provable scientific thesis that is iron-clad, or did he introduce a new way of thinking about innovation and new product development that is applicable in situations and usefully strategically?
I don't have the brainpower or bandwidth to review and refute or concur with all of Lepore's claims. I think, in fact, that if we look closely at any management philosophy, especially years later with perfect hindsight, we'll find reasons to believe and reasons to doubt. Whether we are talking about disruptive innovation, balanced scorecards, 360 degree evaluations, open plan offices or many other management advances, time will show that there are both advantages and disadvantages to all of these. I missed the part in The Innovator's Dilemma where Christensen said that his insights were perfect and infallible, and that the insights he had would be consistent throughout time and in all conditions and industries. Perhaps that was in the appendix.
Christensen's interesting point was that what we call innovation was actually several different flavors of outcomes - sustaining and disrupting. Sustaining innovation means the constant improvement of a product or service based on what customers know and expect, and in line with existing capabilities and business models. What many people might call incremental innovation. It's the most common form of innovation, and it is what adds incremental revenue and growth to many bottom lines.
There has always existed the idea of disruption. In the computer industry the mainframe was the dominant computing model, until the mini-computer came along, which was then "disrupted" by the PC. Did any of these disruptions mean the demise and death of the mainframe? No, but often the new innovation opened up new computing opportunities with lower cost and in smaller teams than the previous platform. Disruption has always existed, and firms have always needed to prepare for it or get subsumed by it. What I think Christensen did that was a bit new was to consider the style of disruptive innovation. Previously many assumed that "disruptive" innovation would happen "from above" - that is, a new product or service that added a tremendous number of new features and benefits. This has led to many examples of product feature "bloat" - and yes I'm looking at you Microsoft Word, while I find myself using Google Docs and Microsoft Pages far more often.
Christensen's insight was that many "disruptive" innovations came from "below" - that is they often had fewer features or less functionality than the existing product or offering, but opened new markets or attracted new segments that were overlooked or underserved before. Some of this insight is evident in the Blue Ocean Strategy book as well - the idea that there exist in any industry a multitude of underserved customers or simple unmet needs.
Christensen's case studies - computer hard drives, mini-mills, etc, all use examples of smaller, less capable or less feature-rich solutions "disrupting" the existing paradigm. Lepore isn't happy with the selections for various reasons. She argues that US Steel was hampered by unions and had fairly rigid work rules, while Nucor didn't, and that assisted the disruption, and oh by the way US Steel is still the largest producer of steel. Sure, but Nucor is the most profitable, and I'd far rather be the most profitable than the largest. Did Christensen highlight only the research that reinforced his theories? Most likely he was inclined to do so, because we all suffer from confirmation bias. Were there other reasons why these firms were disrupted, or failed to compete effectively? Probably, but after all a PhD thesis is usually carried out in very narrow fields of study. Did Christensen set out to create an iron-clad "law" or to introduce the possibility of different kinds and styles of innovation? Most likely the latter, and the former grew as legions of readers interpreted his work.
So, is disruption a predictable science, a goal or an outcome? We tell our clients that innovation is a spectrum, with small incremental change on one end and disruptive change on the other. Each activity a firm undertakes should be defined by the goal and expected outcome. Do we want incremental solutions to drive small changes in existing product, or do we want to create radical new products or "disrupt" an existing market space? These are goals, not perfectly predictable outcomes.
Note also that most "disruption" is created by people who have no stake in an existing industry. Competitors within an industry will tweak around the edges, but they often have too much at stake in the way things are to create radical change or cannibalize their own products and markets. New entrants will "disrupt" a market by changing the channels, services or business models in ways that incumbents seek to protect or reinforce. Therefore, when companies talk about "disruptive" change in markets they already serve, what they hope to do is create interesting, new products that add a lot of value over existing solutions, not destroy the market for their existing products. This is also what often leads to feature bloat.
Finally, who gets to decide what is 'disruptive' and what isn't? There isn't a master arbiter of products and language, and while every CEO I know wants disruptive products and services, most aren't ready for the investments or risks associated with truly disruptive solution. Therefore, disruption, like innovation, is a word without a lot of meaning except in context. Disruptive innovation is whatever we want it to mean in the moment or situation, rather than a carefully scripted model where we can check off five or six conditions and declare the idea is 'disruptive" or isn't. As Lepore notes, much of what we can describe as disruptive can only be done in hindsight, and then we ought to consider all of the factors involved in the disruption, not just one new offering or product but the entire system that changed. The theory or concept of disruptive innovation is not like the theory of relativity, where we can simplify the definition into an equation of known dimensions. The theory of disruptive innovation is more directional or notional, but no less valuable from a strategic perspective.
I'm not sure what Lepore was shooting for with her takedown of Christensen, which to some extent has been deconstructed by others. What we do need to remind ourselves of in the innovation space is that everything is fungible and poorly defined - there are few absolutes. But I suspect that's what drew many of us to the space in the first place.