Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part I]: Storm in a Modernist Teacup

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Harvard University Professor Jill Lepore

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”.

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HBS Professor Clayton Christensen

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.

Theory as Narrative

At the same time there is no doubt that disruption theory makes for a powerful David and Goliath narrative, in which scrappy underdogs from humble beginnings overthrow large, complacent giants. Even Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, and one of Christensen’s first fans in the Valley, said that, while disruption theory didn’t tell them anything new about Intel, it gave them a powerful narrative that allowed them to galvanize people into action, create alignment and build commitment. For a narrative historian Lepore seems curiously insensitive to this essential role of compelling stories in every organization. She, like Grove, could have made the case that the value of the theory is really in its narrative power, which allows high-tech entrepreneurs, among others, to define their identities better.

Lepore’s Real Concern: Disruption Theory as a Virulent Strain of Modernism

Reading the essay, one gathers that Lepore’s real concern is the pretensions of disruptive innovation to be anything more than a set of explanations as to why businesses fail: “It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s a manufacture of the moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a poor prophet.”

In its essence, this appears to be the concern that disruption theory is a virulent strain of systemic modernism* – instrumental reason – that will metastasize through the social sciences. Modernism is a worldview that has its origins in the European Enlightenment and the choice of reason as the highest human quality. It embraced the belief that the power of rational thought and progress in science and technology could liberate humanity from its bonds and escape its ugly past. The assumption is that the world is relatively stable, and that a detached, disinterested observer can view it objectively and represent it in neutral language. This means that the scientific method can be reliably used to analyze and understand cause-and-effect relationships and used to explain and predict and to control the world. It was a modernist view that underpinned the reform of the business schools in the late 1950s, when it led to a new emphasis on quantification and calculation and the rise of economics and finance to dominance. In the guise of neoclassical economics, modernism has revealed imperial ambitions to expand into the social sciences. At its most extreme, modernism slides into scientism; the belief that science is the only source of valid knowledge.

Although this fear seems overblown, it’s a good question as to whether Christensen does hold modernist views.  It’s hard to tell, as modernism does not encourage the asking of such questions. It would be surprising if he did not, as such attitudes are endemic in American business schools. Perhaps the clearest indication that he does is the prevalence of machine metaphors and images in his writings. To him the economy is a “magnificent machine” and so is capitalism. That, together with his enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in education, seems to indicate an engineering bent. Mechanical metaphors are modernism’s default trope because it allows its users to feel that they are emulating the natural sciences. With a machine, however complicated, you can explain and predict. You have the power to control; mechanical problems imply engineering solutions.

Having said that, however, Clayton Christensen’s modernism would be embraced and contained by his devout Mormonism. Of course, it is only this framing and containing of instrumental rationality by an ethical framework, which governs when and how it is used, that makes its exercise tolerable within human organizations and legitimate outside in the wider community.

Not Criminal But Unfair

As a historian, Lepore is right to raise the issues that she did, especially her concerns about the superficial, materialist culture that is emerging in Silicon Valley. She is critical of the triviality of many of its innovations and its emphasis on the individual, with little concern for community. But it seems grossly unfair to saddle Clay Christensen with the responsibility for the Faustian bargains being made by others. With this underhanded move, Professor Lepore has disqualified herself from the debate. Any abuse of disruption theory, like that of business process reengineering before it, is a symptom of our malaise, not a cause. Next week, in the second half of this blog I will discuss the benefits of framing disruption theory in ecological rather than mechanical terms.`

* The description is from Cooper and Burrell, “Modernism, Postmodernism and Organizational Analysis: An Introduction”, Organization Studies, 1988, 9/1, pp. 91-112. They contrast it with critical modernism. Systemic modernism is the “instrumentalization of reason” as envisioned by Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, the founder of the discipline of sociology and the doctrine of positivism. Its archetypal character is Goethe’s Faust, who sells his soul in exchange for knowledge.

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