Otherwise serious concepts sometimes end up as overused buzzwords. If the books and articles that introduced them become popular, the concepts can get stretched and applied way beyond their intended meaning. The business world is particularly awash with such trendy buzzwords. After a while, most of them quietly return to their academic roots or disappear altogether, and the public moves on to the next popular buzzword. Examples abound, including core competencies, paradigm shift, and synergy.
Few business concepts have been as long and widely used as disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation was coined around 20 years ago by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen to describe “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” His 1997 bestseller, The Innovator's Dilemma, further elaborated and popularized the concept. Over the years, he has continued to author and co-author books and articles on the subject, including The Innovator’s Solution, The Innovator’s Prescription, and The Innovative University.
A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. I looked forward to the article. Given the relentless impact of technology-based innovation on just about all aspects of society, I like reading the views of different people on the subject, especially those outside my own worlds of technology and business. I particularly like to read the opinion of scholars in the humanities, who might well be in the best position to describe these societal changes through the lens of history and human nature.
I was frankly taken aback by Professor Lepore’s article. The article makes a number of good points, in particular, that the concept of disruption has been overused and misused in business. But it then turns into what some have described as an “absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation.” It does so, as noted in Businessweek, by accusing Christensen of poor scholarship, misreading history, and myopia.
In a subsequent interview Christensen said: “I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way.”
Several people have weighed in on Lepore’s article. Some have come to Christensen’s defense, including articles in Forbes, Slate, and Vox. Others welcomed her takedown of “the innovation craze,” - as The New Yorker not so delicately put it, - with headlines like The emperor of “disruption theory” is wearing no clothes, Disruption disrupted, and Creative Destruction Yada Yada. A few have tried to take a more balanced view like The Data For And Against Disruptive Innovation: What Difference Does It Make?
My personal reaction to Lepore’s article is quite negative. While I disagree with the article’s content, it’s her aggressive, personal attacks on Christensen that really turned me off. Such a style, sadly, now dominates our political discourse but feels out of place when discussing important subjects like the impact of innovation on society. But, after reading the opinions of those who felt that disruptive innovation deserved such a takedown, I started to reflect on the feelings that Lepore gave voice to, and why the’re so different from my own.
Innovation has played a central role in my long career. At IBM’s Watson Research Center, where I spent the first 15 years of my career, I was mostly involved in technology transfer initiatives aimed at moving innovations from IBM’s research labs to its product divisions. I then transferred to IBM’s large systems division, where my main focus soon became the transition of mainframes to CMOS-based microprocessors and parallel architectures, a disruptive transition that IBM barely survived. I later held different positions across the company, mostly based on identifying emerging technologies and market developments and organizing companywide initiatives to capitalize on them, including supercomputing, the Internet, Linux and On Demand.
For the past 10 years, the term innovation has been part of my titles. At IBM I was VP of Innovation and Strategy from 2004 until my retirement in May of 2007. At Citigroup, where I consulted from March, 2008 through June of this year, I was strategic advisor for innovation and technology. In my more recent academic activities, I’ve taught courses at MIT on technology-based innovation, as well as earlier this year at NYU’s new Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP).
I’ve given many seminars on the subject over the past decade. I generally start my seminars by asking why innovation has been so important a topic for so long now. The answer, in my opinion, is rather straightforward. Innovation is a response to the historical changes taking place in technology, business and society as we transition from the industrial economy of the past 200 years to an emerging 21st century digital economy. Every business and industry must innovate, that is, adapt to these changes, ward off competitors and not only survive, but try to establish a leadership position by pursuing new market opportunities.
In my seminars, I usually discuss Christensen’s distinction between sustained and disruptive innovation. Sustained innovations are improvements to existing products and services that do not create new markets, often in response to the requirements of a company’s most demanding, existing customers.
Disruptive innovations, on the other hand, generally start life as simpler, more convenient, less expensive good enough offerings that appeal to new or less-demanding customers. What makes them so dangerous to existing products is that, if allowed to gain a market foothold, they can get on a learning curve of rapidly improving quality and capabilities, and over time end up toppling the incumbents from their leadership position. Disruptive innovation is mostly about discovering new markets for new technologies, products and services.
I’ve found Christensen’s disruptive innovation ideas to be a useful organizing framework for discussing the creative destruction aspects of innovation, such as the very painful near-death experience that IBM went through about 20 years ago. I’ve found his framework to be equally useful when discussing the creative construction aspects of innovation, which I often illustrate with my personal experiences leading IBM’s Internet initiative.
In my classes and seminars, I point out that both types of innovation, - sustaining and disruptive, - are equally important. Successful companies - especially market leaders being chased by small and large competitors - must achieve a delicate balance between carefully managing their existing operations, and embracing new ideas that will propel them into the future. But, each requires a very different management style.
Operational excellence requires detailed analysis of technologies, quality, processes, competitors, customer satisfaction and market segments, and as such, is well suited to a more hierarchic, disciplined style of management. But organizing a new business around a new, disruptive innovation, requires a very different style based on establishing an early market presence; well-planned experimentation; close external collaborations with research communities, business partners and early adopters; and continuous refinement until it becomes clearer what the winning strategy should be.
In my courses, I’ve found that two books are particularly good for teaching this very delicate balance between operations and strategy, and between incremental and disruptive innovations: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, by former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, and The Innovator’s Solution, Christensen’s 2003 book, co-written with Michael Raynor. The Innovator’s Solution is a particularly good book for teaching how to identify disruptive innovations, the kinds of actions and practices that companies should follow to embrace them, and how to turn innovation from a threat to a competitive advantage.
What’s causing the angst and negative feelings about disruptive innovation that’s led to Professor Lepore’s article, and the expressions of support it’s received? I think that it’s part of a growing backlash against the relentless technology advances we’ve been living through for a quite a while now, and the havoc that’s come in its wake. Many people are truly tired of all the talk of disruptive technologies with more to come in the future, even if they could not do without the Internet, smartphones and similar innovations.
There is an increasing realization of the pain brought about by all these changes, especially the number of industries being disrupted and the many jobs that have been lost and will never come back. We hope that, as in the past, new industries will give rise to exciting new jobs. But, no one knows for sure.
This rising backlash is evidenced in the anger at the buses that Google, Facebook and Apple are providing to take their employees from San Francisco to their Silicon Valley offices. You can see it in Silicon Valley, HBO’s new biting satire, as well as in a brilliant recent episode of HBO’s Veep. You can find it in the excellent recent article in the NY Times Magazine - Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem. And, I believe, Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article is another manifestation of this backlash.
In the end, innovation is a journey from the past and present into an unknown future, - a highly complex journey that we are all a part of. It’s important that we collaborate across disciplines, - technology, business, social sciences, humanities, - to better understand and anticipate where the journey might take us. And, we should, together, do our best to try to guide the journey in the best possible directions for people everywhere.