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Thursday Complexity Post
July 3, 2014
  

Disruptive Innovation Debate  

   

Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don't agree on much, and Lepore's sharply written assault on Christensen's theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.

 

In his 1997 book the Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen lays out his theory of disruptive innovation, which holds that products or services that begin simply and inexpensively at the bottom of the market, often using new technology, can eventually displace those of established companies that seem to be doing all the right things to maintain their success. The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management theorists, last year for the second time named Christensen the top "thought leader" in the world, and disruptive innovation has been one of the most widely celebrated ideas in modern business.   

 

According to Lepore, the theory's celebration is one of its problems: she thinks it has escaped critical examination and been carelessly applied to explain too much. In her New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine," Lepore analyzes how we understand innovation and disruption. Every age has its theory of history, she writes. The eighteenth century had the idea of progress, the nineteenth had evolution, and the twentieth had growth and innovation. "Our era has disruption," she writes, "which despite its futurism is atavistic. It's a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation and shaky evidence."

 

Innovation used to have negative connotations, she says, but the idea was redeemed by its use to describe bringing new products to market. Still, she writes, "The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspiration of enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt and you will be saved."

 

In his book, Christensen supports his theory with industrial case histories. Mainframe computer manufacturers were disrupted when they missed the market for personal computers. Mini steel mills disrupted the operations of big steel companies, and a healthy department store industry-the number of stores in U.S. plunged from 316 to fewer than 10-was disrupted by growth of discount stores. Lepore asserts that Christensen handpicked his examples, and she introduces evidence to challenge or complicate much of his analysis. She notes, for instance, that companies and divisions that dominated the disc drive industry in the 1980s dominate today, despite facing disruption Christensen describes from makers of smaller hard drives. She also points out a high failure rate among would-be disruptive start ups.

 

In an interview with Drake Bennett at Bloomberg Business Week, Christensen agrees with Lepore that the word disruption has become a clich´┐Ż. But agreement ends there. He calls her story "a criminal act of dishonesty." Slate's technology writer Will Oremus says that's overstating his case, which is what he accuses Lepore of doing. Oremus concludes that Lepore's cherry-picked examples don't overthrow Christensen's theory any more than Christensen's cherry-picked examples definitely prove it. In a piece in Forbes, Clark Gilbert, chief executive of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, vigorously defends Christensen's theory and the scholarship behind it, as does business consultant John Hegel in his blog.

 

Salon's Andrew Leonard, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and New York Magazine's Kevin Roose, sympathize with Lepore's views with some caveats. Richard Feloni at Business Insider reviews reactions, including tweets from Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft's Windows division, who suggests that both professors are right. He says disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it's still a useful theory.

 

What do disruptive innovation theory and its critique look like through a complexity lens? If you have thoughts on that, we'd love to hear from you.

 

 

Events of interest  

 

RCRC Roundtable, September 4-5, 2014 in Billings Clinic will be two highly interactive days of fun and learning on the topic of "Bridging Across Differences - Advancing the Practice of Relational Coordination," hosted by the innovative Billings Clinic and sponsored by The Plexus Institute.

  

Leading Organizations to Health is a 10-month program on change leadership that integrates leading edge theories (from complexity, relational coordination, positive psychology, adult development and other domains) with advanced facilitation skills and peer coaching, all in a highly experiential and reflective learning environment.  

 
The 1st International Conference on Systems and Complexity in Health, November 13-14, 2014 in Washington, DC will bring together for the first time leading thinkers and researchers to explore and exchange insights under the theme: The value of systems and complexity sciences for healthcare: An imperative for the 21st century. 

 

 

Remember PlexusCalls!

    


PlexusCalls

Friday, July 11, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Workplaces of the Future
Guests: Thomas Lockwood, Robert Peck, Sharon Benjamin               

 

CEOs want workplace design that fosters innovation, but what does that mean? Can open space for collaboration and closed spaces for concentration be successfully combined? More people want to work at home, but they want amenities of home when they go to work. And what happens to their space then they're away? Is the personal work station going the way of the typewriter? These guests know the issues and the trends.

 

 

Healthcare PlexusCalls

Wednesday, July 16, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

New Skills and Structures for New Ways of Working Together
Guests: Dov Pollack               

 

Healthcare is changing rapidly. The Affordable Care Act brings new patients and changes in reimbursement. Scientific research is bringing new treatments and therapies. Increase in complexity is creating the need for more collaboration and, sometimes, the need for new organizational structures. What is your organization doing to learn, change and thrive?

 

 

PlexusCalls

Friday, August 22, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Quality Childhood Programs Boost Adult Health
Guests: James Heckman, Gabriella Conti and Ruth Perry                

 

A growing body of evidence suggests early childhood adversity echoes throughout lifetimes in terms of diminished educational and economic outcomes. Researchers have also found that can change-and that high quality early interventions impact adult health in surprising ways. Data from the North Carolina Abecedarian Project started in 1972 shows adults who received educational, medical and nutritional support from infancy through age 5 have less high blood pressure, less obesity, and lower incidence of chronic diseases than peers who were not part of the intervention. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics and University of Chicago professosr, led the data analysis. He and health economist Gabriella Conti are coauthors of Science Magazine article detailing results of the study.  

 

 

See more upcoming PlexusCalls on the Plexus Calendar.  

 
Audio from all PlexusCall series is available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit plexusinstitute.org under Resources/Call Series. 

  

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