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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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



Building your leadership legacy—the organization that thrives for generations. Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners on the “nimble organization.” Post 3 of 3

“If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.”—Agesilaus II

Legacy - fingerprint with citation.jpgLeaders at the very top of organizations—and by this I mean board members, CEOs, EVPs, and SVPs—have a very rare opportunity. They shape the destinies of their organizations and those of the people working for them, not to mention people in the communities they serve and the economies in which they operate.

Through their corporate strategies, they leave their fingerprints on the future of their organizations in the short term (which is always under scrutiny by Wall Street), but also in the long term.

Can leaders build organizations that outperform the market over 18 years or longer? Where should they start? continue reading here



What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3

Daryl Conner’s extensive thought leadership on creating nimble organizations has the potential to breathe new life into the dinosaurs of the Fortune 1000 and S&P 500.

As a preface, let’s just level-set. Why should leaders and boards care about an organization’s ability to change? Is it a real issue?

Tenure on S&P500The statistics are not kind.

The Innosight study, “Creative Destruction Whips through Corporate America,” indicates that:

“the 61-year tenure for the average firm in 1958 narrowed to 25 years in 1980—and to 18 years now.” (2012) continue reading here



The strategic imperative of the “nimble organization” and why it seems to be a mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 1 of 3

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daryl photo After the “Evolution of Change Management” series with Jennifer Frahm (where we landed with “Will ‘Change Management’ become extinct?”), and with Zappos announcing its move to holacracy, it just seemed like it was time to talk to Daryl Conner about the nimble organization.

In this post, I interview Daryl about what “nimble” means, why it is a strategic imperative, and why it seems to be so difficult for organizations to get traction with it. continue reading here



What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 3 of 3

ICD growing moneyThis post concludes my notes and my observations and comments (indicated by italics) from the panel discussion, “Growth Strategy—the Board’s Role,” run by the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD).

The panel was stellar, with names well known to board and strategy watchers: Thomas O’Neill, Krystyna Hoeg, Stephen Bear, and Ken Smith (bios in Post 1). Overall, I found it a great overview of the most obvious answers to the seven questions, peppered with relevant examples and a few deeply insightful remarks.

The bottom line for me? The board members totally “get” the need to be engaged in strategy formulation; however, there was not much conversation about execution. Granted, it was not specifically called out in the abstract but I had hoped it would get more mention. The jury is out for me on what to make of the fact that it didn’t. continue reading here



What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 2 of 3

Institute of Corporate DirectorsThis post is a continuation of notes from a fantastic panel discussion, “Growth Strategy—the Board’s Role,” run by the Institute of Corporate Directors.

On stage, board members represented major public- and private-sector organizations such as BCE, Bell Canada, Scotiabank, Loblaw, Shoppers Drug Mart, St. Michael’s Hospital, Sun Life Financial, Canadian Pacific Railway, Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, and Imperial Oil. Bios are provided in Post 1. My own comments are indicated in italics. continue reading here



What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 1 of 3

Institute of Corporate DirectorsSOLD OUT! I signed up for this panel presentation, “Growth Strategy—the Board’s Role,” as soon as the fall season schedule from the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) came out.

Good thing I did—many, it seems, are interested in “practical tips to help boards apply their time and expertise effectively on strategy issues.” continue reading here



What are the real costs of “muscling through” change? The evolution of Change Management. Post 1 of 3

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”—Lao Tzu

crowbar There is a back-room mindset in times of change: “Change the people or change the people.”  It means either convince (or coerce) the existing staff to adapt to the new way of working or fire them and hire someone else.  This phrase has always irked me.

Looking for some objectivity and additional insight for this series, I partnered up with senior change practitioner, Jennifer Frahm. You may know Jennifer from her terrific blog “Conversations of Change.”

We applied ourselves to articulating why this mindset is a fallacy, to considering what leaders are doing instead, and then finally to whether advancements will actually make Change Management, as we know it, extinct.  continue reading here




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