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I am taking a summer break from blogging and with a number of writing, teaching and speaking assignments looming, I need some time to prepare for them. The New Ecology of Leadership is coming out in paperback in October and I need to prepare for that launch too.
In future the blog will be occasional, rather than weekly and one of my projects will be to review the 130+ blogs I have written over the past two-and-a-half years with a view to putting together a field book of the ecological perspective.
I hope that you all (in the northern hemisphere) have a great summer!
This is the third in my series of blogs triggered by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s criticism of HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. Although her curiously jumbled assessment was wide of the mark, it presented an opportunity for me to outline an ecological interpretation of disruption, rather than the mechanical readings that are so common and seem to be favoured by Christensen himself.
Last week I translated disruption into ecological concepts, using Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling’s adaptive cycle and the larger concept of panarchy, which looks at the interaction of these cycles at different systems levels. This week I add the cognitive dimension, which turns the adaptive cycle into the ecocycle, allowing one to use ecological analogies to understand the transformation of human organizations. In Crisis & Renewal I used Berkeley professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s triad of perspectives on action: emergent, rational and constrained to supply this cognitive dimension and to suggest that they might represent three stages rather than three static categories.
This blog is a continuation of last week’s in which I discussed Jill Lepore’s mostly off-target criticisms of HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. There I said that my concern with Christensen’s work was his tendency to rely on machine analogies when talking about the economy and the complex system that is capitalism. Mechanical analogies tend to suggest engineering solutions and imply that we understand cause-and-effect rather better than we really do. When applied to complex systems, with their “wicked” problems, engineering solutions can result in unintended consequences. At the level of the firm mechanical analogies lead to people being seen as instruments of the firm, rather than as ends-in-themselves.
In The New Ecology of Leadership I argued that ecological analogies do a much better job of capturing practitioner experience. In this blog I want to outline how an ecological perspective on change and disruption provides a much more generative context than mechanical models. I am going into the ecological model in some detail to make it clear that this is not an idle comparison but an analogy that can be disciplined by reference to ecological science and systems theory. Only when one gets into the detail can one see how it might be used to frame disruption theory. In this week’s blog I will outline the ecological model. In next week’s blog I will use my adaptation of it to understand change and disruptive innovation in human systems.
A recent article in the New Yorker by Harvard history professor, Jill Lepore is creating quite a storm in management circles. In it she takes Harvard Business School’s Clayton M. Christensen to task for sloppy methods in the derivation and application of his theory of disruptive innovation. The article has provoked a number of responses, some siding with Lepore and others with Christensen. In an interview on Friday the HBS professor of management reacted to Lepore’s charges with some annoyance. This must be as close to mad as Clay Christensen ever gets, for he accuses her of a “criminal act of dishonesty”.
Initially Lepore’s quarrel is with the evidence that Christensen used to develop his theory and the validity of its predictions. She charges him with cherry-picking examples and creating arbitrary definitions of success that favour his case. In his spirited rebuttal Christensen handles each of these points and accuses Lepore of neglecting to consult any of his or others’ writings on disruption since his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. He said she failed to understand that disruption is a process, not an event, with outcomes becoming apparent only over time. This point goes to Christensen…
A second complaint by Lepore is the widespread misuse of the concept of disruption, especially by the denizens of Silicon Valley, who have seized upon it as a powerful narrative that describes what they do. Here Lepore is right and Christensen seems to agree with her: disruption theory is becoming a management fad and being hyped on a scale not seen since the rise of the reengineering movement in the 1990s or Thomas Kuhn’s coining of the concept of a paradigm in the early 1960s. It is attracting the usual horde of hucksters and snake oil salesmen. Much of this activity seems to consist of taking the idea to areas where it was never intended to go. In business it is built around the proposition that established firms can anticipate disruption and protect themselves against it. The evidence for this is slender: disruption is much easier to detect in hindsight than it is to identify in prospect. It can be used to explain why an enterprise failed, but it is unclear whether it can be used to predict disruption reliably enough for a firm to take pre-emptive action.
I spent the past week teaching a leadership class at the Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business at the University of Regina. At the same time my HBR blog “Is Management Due For a Renaissance” has been attracting continuing comment and during the week I was hard put to keep up with the responses. Management writer Steve Denning and I ended up discussing the role of purpose in organizations and would-be professions like management. Steve emphasized the importance that Aristotle placed on telos, or the purpose of a profession. He wrote:
“I am wondering whether the biggest shortfall in management today in terms of practical wisdom is having the wrong telos. The conventional wisdom in big business is that the purpose–or telos–of an organization is to maximize shareholder value, a notion that even Jack Welch has called ‘the dumbest idea in the world.’ Should we not be getting back to what Peter Drucker said was the only valid purpose of a private sector firm: to create a customer? If we have the wrong telos, can even the best practical wisdom save us?”