Wow! Did the sparks fly when Harvard’s historian, Jill Lepore, took on Harvard’s Business professor, Clayton Christensen. He regularly writes in the Harvard Business Review and she, you may not know, regularly writes in the New Yorker. Just in case you also don’t happen to know, for the past 89 years, The New Yorker, may well be the most respected literary magazine in the world. In an occasionally elitist observation, I periodically comment that you can’t consider yourself an intelligent person unless you read the New York Times, the Economist—and The New Yorker. Feel perfectly free to give me the finger on that comment.
The New Yorker doesn’t usually write about business. But it has no qualms writing about shakers and movers. So Jill Lepore gave us six, small print, three column pages on “The Disruption Machine” and Clayton Christensen.
Still the real issue is not the flying sparks, but the substance of her argument about what “the gospel of innovation gets wrong.” And at that point, we need to pay attention. Seems like everyone agrees with her. And Christensen, backed into his corner, just about agrees too. . . .
FYI: You can pay $6.99 for The New Yorker and read (study) the six pages.
I’ll provide you with Slate’s article, “a cut-rate summary of Jill Lepore’s long, expensive, high-quality magazine story about Clayton Christensen,” by Will Oremus. But you’re liable to want to follow the links on Slate to get the full skinny. It’s all over the web.
I read all six pages, but am feeling a bit lazy today. So you’re going to get Will Oremus’ Slate summary:
- Innovation is the new “progress.” “Innovation,” once a pejorative, is now exalted.
- The book that coined the term “disruptive innovation” relies on some shaky anecdotal evidence. The most substantive and compelling part of Lepore’s article is her critical rereading of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma and developed the theory of disruptive innovation.
- The theory of disruptive innovation has no predictive value. When Christensen attempted to capitalize on his theory by starting a “Disruptive Growth Fund,” it quickly went bust.
- The arenas Christensen and others are now trying to disrupt ought not to be disrupted. Here Lepore pivots, a little awkwardly, from questioning the legitimacy of Christensen’s theory to lamenting its impacts on established institutions that she holds dear.
- The “upstarts who work at startups” have large coffee machines and also no morals. Did I mention Lepore doesn’t particularly appreciate startup types cavorting on her lawn? “They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere,” she complains. “They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.”
- All of this has something to do with Steppenwolf and the decline of religion. This may just be my ignorance as a scooter-riding, jeans-and-sneakers-wearing, office-sharing, couch-sprawling blogger, but Lepore lost me right about here: “Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.” Whew! I guess Christensen isn’t the only one who overreaches now and then.
- Disruptive innovation is simply a theory about why businesses fail. “It’s not more than that,” Lepore says. “It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature.” As for the future, it’s “unreadable.” This is the piece’s big payoff, and it’s hard to argue with, as far as it goes. The funny thing is I already agreed with it going in.
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