About the Lepore critique of Christensen’s theory of disruption in “Innovator’s Dilemma”

Jill Lepore offers in the recent New Yorker a useful and interesting critique of Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”. In that book, Christensen lays out an ambitious theory of disruptive innovation as a way of describing the rise and fall of companies due to technological change driven largely by outside entrepreneurs.

As Lepore describes, the book has had a huge impact in many sectors of the economy – spawning events like the Techcrunch Disrupt conference, a new degree in disruption at Southern Cal, the recent firing of the New York Times editor, and Christensen’s famous quote that half of all universities will be bankrupt in the next 15 years.

Her point isn’t that disruption never happens. Her point is that the evidence for this theory is fragmented – that Christensen’s cases support his theory less than he claims.

Her critique is useful for those of us who use illustrative cases to support broader, more general theories. It’s also useful for those who buy into theories not based on the purported evidence, but because the theory resonates with a worldview, or because our affective reactions to the world (in this case, fear about upheaval in the economy) cause us to see the theory everywhere (that we’ll all be disrupted).

One might criticize the chattiness of the Lepore critique. Such a complaint could be made about Innovator’s Dilemma itself, which reads like a long New Yorker article.

Just because Amazon exists, it doesn’t mean that everything is a bookstore. And even if a disruptor out there thinks he’s Jeff Bezos and that your organization is a bookstore, the Seagate case tells us that all incumbents began as startups, and that established incumbents often have strong Porteresque competitive advantages.