For his book, "The Innovator's Dilemma", Harvard professor Clayton Christensen received awareness and attention beyond the scientific community in the management arena. The concept of disruptive innovation presented in this book - as stark opposite to incremental innovation - has been widely adopted in the language and the world of thinking in management, since the books first issue in the year 1997.
Since a couple of months there has been another kind of discussion going on around the concept of disruptive innovation. Jill Lepore, an acknowledged professional of liberal arts and publicist in the US, put the concept and the scientific research under tough and very critical scrutiny in an article in "The New Yorker". Lepore proves, with the diligence of research of a historian, that some of Christensens case studies could also be seen and interpreted differently. Particulary illustrative is her description of the pitfalls of an extreme adoption of the concept, to which Christensen also attributes a quality of prediction, in thinking and acting.
Christensen assumes a simple premise, namely that coporations will fail with that, with which they have been successful before. This, since they have the tendency to stick to what proved to be successful in the past. Small innovations will not deliver success in the long run. Only disruptive innovation provides the chance to survive. On this basis, corporations are always moving into the direction of failure, unless they innovate disruptively. Herein lies a circular argumentation. In this way, the disruptive innovation creates a vicious cycle of angst, to which remedy it has established itself. The fact that disruptive innovation often enough is not delivering the desired success or renders even fundamental failure, is not really getting mentioned.
Jill Lepore's article, which caused wide-spread attention, is worth reading. It is actucally something special, that a widely well-known concept of a Harvard professor is being re-thought in such a way. Nevertheless, I see the significance of this article much more in the fact that it leads someone to deep consideration and addresses a much widercontext:
1. What do we expect from concepts of the business sciences? What do they promise? The deduction of nature-like rules and predictions?
2. How to handle the complexity within case studies? What can be concluded from them in a scientifically impeccable way?
3. How to handle research studies and the concepts based on them, when their "winning companies" turn into "losers" over time?
4. How are management concepts adopted in the management practice? Are they typical management fads, which get out-of-fashion sometime?
5. How logically stringent is our thinking on management topics - conceptually and in practice? Don't we suffer ourselves from circular conclusions sometimes or see things in a light, which we would like to find as the light of knowledge?
This article has been commented on several times in the scientific community and in the media, among others: