Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

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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9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Here’s one more, worth reading:

Comment by Harold

Thank you Harold! Indeed great perspectives. This really resonated for me “What’s up is pervasive anger at the corporate and political classes that have used the theory of disruptive innovation to justify an endless procession of company downsizings and closings over the past thirty years.” and “People are also angry at the belief of many advocates that resistance is futile and resisters are losers.”

I get it that many of us are personally uncomfortable with the speed of change and the impacts of that change on us – and we may want to strike back at those who promote it.

However, that disruption is painful is not relevant to whether or not is it happening, ie the pain is a side effect only (which must be managed).

If Christensen and the schools of innovation thinking are correct, then innovation and particularly disruptive innovation is inevitable – ie the “rust belt” was inevitable – either you figure it out or your competitors will.

I have to disagree with this author: “In addition, like Beckett’s Godot, the renewal to which this disruption was to lead never actually showed up” – the problem is that “renewal”, in the new world, is not about more jobs in American towns – renewal won’t look like Youngstown in its hey day.

Renewal did show up but somewhere else in the world – and those global companies have kept making their profits. And, btw as long as all of us shop at the Walmarts of the world (whose raison d’etre is to drive prices down) it never will. This is a entirely different problem (and maybe class of problem) – the mission of organizations is to drive profits – they will do this in whatever ways necessary – creating local jobs is not on the agenda, it just isn’t. This is not an attribute of disruptive innovation rather it is a driver of it. Solving that requires talking about a different subject altogether.

It does seem to me that proactive attempts to disrupt markets (i.e. disruptive innovation as a strategy) must certainly accelerate the cycle and this acceleration certainly has consequences.

The alternative (not disrupting and waiting for the organization’s death knell) is similarly not attractive.

This takes me to the issue of timing – surely organizations must get good at innovation and timing launches, i.e. optimize the current market (don’t cannibalize your current golden goose) but be ready to launch. The decision to go for bleeding edge or fast follower, seems to me, a more sensible strategic discussion.

Thanks for getting me thinking again!

Comment by Gail Severini

Hi Gail, thank you for sharing this intellectual brawl.

You make a great point that “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.”

The pundits help shape our views; they don’t create them.

I am looking forward to your next update!


Comment by Phil Buckley

Thanks Phil. I sure hope we all will engage our own brains in this. It is complicated and, it seems to me, that much of the thinking, at every level, is still rough.

Comment by Gail Severini

This might be the best article yet on the general subject of the legitimacy of disruptive innovation:”Disruption Corruption”

Comment by Gail Severini

Another good one: “Attack on Clayton Christensen’s theory falls wide of the mark” Andrew Hill, Financial Times

Comment by Gail Severini

More … from a co-founder Clayton Christensen’s investment firm

Comment by Gail Severini

Last Thursday Harvard Business Review had a scheduled interview with Clay Christensen on his latest book: “The Capitalist’s Dilemma: Reassessing Our Opportunities for Investing in Innovation” –
Featuring Clayton M. Christensen, Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

It was outstanding and I hope they will release the full video (which I will share via Twitter and LinkedIn – so please do also connect with me there).

In the interview, he was naturally invited to response to Lepore. HBS has released that 5-minute clip here

Comment by Gail Severini

[…] Gail also provides a terrific summary of the academic stoush on the theory of Disruptive Innovation in: When Harvard professors duke it out – the ugly debate on Clayton Christensen’s theory of disrupt… […]

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