The end of an era? Critics challenge 'disruptive innovation'

Study attacks business cases in Christensen's original work

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor

Clayton Christensen proposed his theory of disruptive innovation in 1997. It's been controversial ever since.

Criticism of the Harvard University professor's theory has been gaining momentum for the last 15 months or so, Jay Fitzgerald reports for the Boston Globe. Skeptics concede that new technologies or innovations can blindside and overwhelm business leaders who are otherwise making good decisions. Rather, they argue that disruptions are much less common and more difficult to pull off than Christensen and those who follow him believe.

And now, a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review may undermine the very heart of Christensen's theory. The authors reviewed all 77 business cases that Christensen highlights as examples across his two books, "The Innovator's Dilemma" and "The Innovator's Solution."

Of those 77 cases, only seven meet Christensen's own criteria for a disruptive innovation, the paper argues.

"The overall story that Christensen tells sort of doesn't hold water," says Andrew King, professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business and study author.

The MIT article brought more academic grounding to a New Yorker article from last year, written by Harvard University professor Jill Lepore in a more breezy style. Lepore attacked Christensen's theory, citing one company Christensen characterized as a victim of disruption—that actually bounced back to perform better after the experience. Lepore also criticized how Christensen applied his theory in higher education and health care. "People aren't disk drives," she wrote.

Christensen replied to the Boston Globe that the MIT article "doesn't demonstrate a thorough understanding of how disruption plays out in different industries."

For example, he told the Globe, some disruptions happen very quickly, such as those in the computer industry. But others, like historical changes in the steel industry, took place over decades.

"At the end of the day, the test of a theory is its usefulness," Christensen told the Globe. "And many companies and many executives have found disruption a powerful lens to help them respond to shifts in their industries" (Lepore, New Yorker, 6/23/14; Fitzgerald, The Boston Globe, 10/24).

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