If you have not read the article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine – What the gospel of innovation gets wrong“, I recommend you do and the rebuttal by the father of disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen. A number of people have gone on Twitter sphere defending the theory of disruptive innovation and others nostalgic to the romantic writing of Jill Lepore seem to take stabs at the whole notion of disruption. Given that I have written a lot about Clayton Christensen’s work and I have read most of his books from the Innovator’s Dilemma to Seeing what’s next, I think it is only a matter of time before I share my 2 cents.
When I read the article by Jill, I felt, she as an author was feeling disrupted and wanted nothing to do with it. She just wanted the whole business of journalism be left alone. The way to go about doing that is to take stabs at the narrative of the father of Innovator’s Dilemma, his methods, his data and his work. Fair enough, it is a free world and anyone can write what they want. However, she falls into the same trap of repeating the same mistakes that she accuses Clay of. What can you say? Journalists and story tellers are no different, actually if anything they are more inclined to build narratives based on anecdotal observations, yours truly included.
I do believe that the theory of Disruption holds water, we have seen traditional businesses disrupted due to advancements in technology, networks and software based services running on the cloud. Clay has been the only scholar to have tried to explain the transformation and also come up with some prescriptions to manage the changes. The most fascinating thing about his theory is that it is still being played out. The thing about theory is that it can be proven wrong. If Jill wants to prove that Clay’s theory is wrong the best way to go about doing that has been documented by my favorite author Nassim Nicholas Taleb through his thinking on the idea of Black Swans. The best way to prove that a theory is wrong is to show examples of cases where the assumptions of the theory are wrong. I don’t plan to go deep into this or talk about the assumptions but my attempt here is to say that the Theory of Innovator’s Dilemma and Disruption is live and kicking and playing out until we can see a Black Swan that shows that this is not the case I think we should continue to look for the symptoms and prepare for the disruptive technologies to displace incumbents.
There are many biases playing out on my taking the above stance, confirmation bias and selection bias, what can I say I am human and I am fallible. I reserve the right to change my mind about theories and things that I believe. IMHO, smart people that I have met usually are open to changing their mind when they see evidence or data or arguments that are compelling. I am not as smart as many of those people, but the best way to become smart is to mimic their models and behaviors.
I’ve been a fan of the disruptive framework for years, but reading the Lepore article was a “eureka” moment for me. I disagree with her on disruption in general, but agree with her on the academic theory of disruption. To me the theory itself now just looks like what Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy” – the Darwinian-bred yearning to put past events into some sort of context we think we understand so we can avoid it happening to us again.
I don’t think Christensen’s disruption has scientific rigour and that it “can be proven wrong,” as you put it. Even though it’s based on data (with very few data points) it cannot be repeated and it most definitely cannot predict future events.
Well, whether it can predict future events is a debate I would like Taleb and Clay to make, it would be fun to see how the rigors of theory matchup against the empirical tinkering philosophy of Taleb. I think there is some validity, one does not need to show the validity by any rigor, just thought experiments are sufficient.