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.