Change Whisperer – Gail Severini's Blog


When Harvard professors duke it out – the ugly debate on Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation

Harvard thought leaders duke it out over strategy

If you have missed it, the gladiators at Harvard Business School are duking it out this week.

You really must catch up.

Here’s the plot line:

May 31st Harvard University is facing disruption of its own business model.  The New York Times reports on “Business School, Disrupted” (addressing the impact of eLearning and Harvard’s strategic choice) and the life’s work of Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen are applied and contrasted as “The Clashing Models”.

A relatively unknown history professor at Harvard, and former student of Michael Porter, writes a scathing, and very public, attack on Christensen’s life’s work in The New Yorker.

June 20th Christensen responds in a candid interview on BloombergBusinessWeek.

Now the players:

Michael Porter – in the back ground, perhaps represented by Jill Lepore:

  • From Wikipedia
  • “In 1985, Porter had published a book called “Competitive Advantage,” in which he elaborated on the three strategies—cost leadership, differentiation, and focus—that he’d described in his 1980 book, “Competitive Strategy.” I almost never saw Porter, and, when I did, he was dashing, affably, out the door, suitcase in hand. “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” appeared in 1990. Porter’s ideas about business strategy reached executives all over the world.” [2]

Clayton Christensen – the target of the tirade:

  • Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University
  • From Wikipedia
  • “The scholar who in some respects became his successor, Clayton M. Christensen…” [2] (catching the sarcasm yet?),
  • “Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. ”
  • “Consistently described by those who know him as a generous and thoughtful and upbeat person, he is also capable of fury.” [3]

Jill Lepore – the protagonist:

  • Professor of American History at Harvard University
  • From Wikipedia
  • Takes issue with Christensen’s theories of disruption “Disruptive innovation is a theory about 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 the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”

Let the games begin.

Read the articles in order:

  1. The context “Business School, Disrupted”, Jerry Useem, New York Times, May 31 2014
  2. The warning shot across the bow “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong”, Jill Lepore,The New Yorker, {waiting for correct publication date – website says June 23rd but today is June 21st – will update upon advice}
  3. Clayton Christensen’s colorful rebuttal – interviewed by BloombergBusinessWeek “Clayton Christensen responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’”, Drake Bennett, June 20 2014

Commentaries will keep coming (I will update this list as I find good new ones – please share your finds in the comments):

If you’ve got a little extra time, read through the comments on these articles.  It’s fascinating to see where readers land.

What are the take aways here?

I will update this post as the events develop but my first reactions:

  • Many of us look to the leading business schools for insight, advice and direction on the complexities of business issues.  What does it tell us when they don’t agree?
  • Such fissures are not uncommon.  Academics are known for fierce debate. This is generally productive―the issues get a solid airing and thorough analysis.
  • This, however, looks “postal”.  Not only is it is hostile, in disturbingly sarcastic―it is feels personal―both the attack and the rebuttal.
  • Maybe I am naïve but I expect a higher level of “professionalism” from people in these positions.  This (The New Yorker) does not seem to be the place for such debate―it’s like Lepore is “calling Christensen out” to a brawl in the public arena and, frankly, he has little option but to respond.
  • I get it that it’s only human for Christensen to be personally affronted however he stoops to cheap tactics too, for example repeatedly calling her “Jill”, then later admitting “I’ve never met her in my life.”
  • So what does it tell us when they don’t agree? We must think for ourselves―we must educate ourselves thoroughly on theory and think hard, and regularly, about its application in our own organizations and environments.
  • Personally, Christensen’s theories (and his continuous development of those theories over time) ring true in the narrow world of my own experience so I admit to being sympathetic.

What do you think about this whole thing? Please share in the Comments section.

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Change Whisperer by www.gailseverini.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.



Multiplying the power of thought partners to super-charge your strategy

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”―Jim Rohn

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I often have the opportunity to think together with colleagues and clients.

You do too, I am sure.  Sometimes it is to plan or solve an issue or even just to chat over a friendly coffee comparing notes on our profession.

The power of the “mind meld” 

However, really thinking together, which my friend Bill Braun describes as “moving along together in thought”, is rare. continue reading here



New !! Model to understand Strategy Execution success

Outperfom model Gail SeveriniWhat comes after radio silence?

Something new.

It has been several weeks since I provided a blog post – I hope you have missed me a little and I hope the wait is worth it.

I am in the process of developing and publishing a new model to better understand Strategy Execution and what is required for success.

Here is the first public presentation, embedded in a presentation to The Conference Board of Canada’s annual Change Management conference on the topic “Is Change Management tactical or strategic?”.  Lots more coming.

continue reading here



Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem (Part 3 of 3)

Who do you seek out when faced with something new?

Someone who has done it before, of course. Leading and managing change is fraught with risk—nuanced, contextual, dynamic, and difficult to decipher.

Judgement is acquired over time and experience.

It is a rare opportunity to speak with a seasoned practitioner in change management and get his or her insights.

This is a continuation of the interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem. For Part 1 please click here; for Part 2 click here.

continue reading here



Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO ignitem (Part 2 of 3)

7 critical elements Kimberlee Williams Ignitem.wmfChange management practitioners are in the fray of turning strategy into ROI. This often feels like nailing Jell-O on the wall, but seasoned practitioners have insights that the rest of us can benefit from.

This is a continuation of the interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem. For Part 1 please click here and Part 3 here.

continue reading here



Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem (Part 1 of 3)

Kimberlee WilliamsWho knows more about change management than practitioners in the trenches? These are professionals who are vested in helping organizations achieve the promises to the Board (the strategy, “the change”) and who have dedicated their careers to figuring out how to do this well.

In this series, Insights in Change Management, we will hear the voices of these professionals.

Kimberlee Williams is the voice of global business professionals driving performance through transformation and change. She’s worked with companies in 18 industries, often during ambiguous, distressed, and difficult periods in their histories.

As Head of Global Change Execution in Merck’s Strategy Office, she pioneered strategy execution and change leadership by accelerating critical initiatives, building sustainable skills in the $46B/50,000-employee base, and guiding an informal community of thousands of change agents who enabled $3.5B in savings.

continue reading here



Advances in Strategy Execution

There have been three important developments in the last six months that we should all take note of:

continue reading here




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