Naysayers are swarming on Clayton Christensen and his “gospel of innovation”

Clayton Christensen

Updated 6-24.

If business school professors were pop stars, Clayton Christensen would be Beyonce. His 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is wildly influential — in particular, it has been both the theoretical underpinning and rallying banner for would-be digital disruptors of legacy media.

Most recently, Christensen’s thinking is central (and repeatedly cited) in the leaked 2014 Innovation Report young digital staffers of the New York Times produced this spring.  They argue that the print newspaper on which the company built its reputation needs to be de-emphasized and that, borrowing from upstarts like BuzzFeed, the Times should embrace a newsroom culture of aggressive digital development.

This month, however, Christensen has begun to gather some formidable detractors as well as acolytes.  The lead critic is fellow Harvard professor Jill Lepore who unloads a long debunking article in the current issue of The New Yorker.

The core of Christensen’s view is that big and established companies often go wrong trying to improve their dominant premium-priced product as nimble challengers whittle away at market share with much cheaper alternatives. Lepore concedes that this “dilemma” — the frequent futility of sustaining improvements — explains some business failures.  But that’s all she concedes.

Otherwise she finds Christensen building a broad general theory on the back of a few  handpicked case studies, many of which are factually and logically flawed. Thus the disruption framework is not a reliable predictor for success and failure, either for incumbent companies trying to survive and prosper or for hot new ventures crashing into a market.

Turning to the example of the Times’ Innovation Report, she writes:

It includes graphs inspired by Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma,” along with a lengthy, glowing summary of the book’s key arguments. The report explains, “Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent—The New York Times.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

The New Yorker piece is getting broad pickup (“The emperor of ‘disruptive theory’ is wearing no clothes,” headlines Salon).

The New York Times led its business section June 1 with an article on the Harvard Business School’s forays into online instruction.  How best to do that is cast as a strategy battle between Christensen and Michael Porter, another faculty star, who thinks a best-of-the-best company “must stay the course.” For the business school that would mean offering limited high-end online courses — a pattern the school is so far following.

Christensen, predictably, thinks the long-established on-campus instruction model is expensive and dated, so he would prefer the b-school wholeheartedly “disrupt itself,”  specifically offering free MOOCs (massive open online courses).  “Do it cheap and simple,” the Times quotes Christensen as saying. “Get it out there.”

Concurrently with Lepore’s article, the business blog Statechery (hat tip to Millie Tran of the American Press Institute) offered a similar rebuttal.  Author Ben Thompson dwells particularly on the number of times Christensen has been wrong in predicting that Apple and its high-end, elegant digital devices are heading for a fall.

Christensen, to my knowledge has not yet replied to the critics, and I doubt he will.  As the week goes on, however, writers for Vox and Slate have weighed in critiquing Lepore’s critique.

For his part Christensen steams along with his work, which in recent years has been done with co-authors and applies the disruption theory analysis to broad fields.  That began when Christensen, who has had a number of serious illnesses, spent his considerable time in hospitals on a theory for fixing the health care business.

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, he and a co-author take on capitalism itself.  They say that the world is suffering a glut of capital and that, especially in large corporations, investments are much more likely to go to money-saving process improvements rather than bold new product development  (“trying to cut your way to prosperity” as we often say in the news business).

In an admiring profile in Harvard Magazine (“Disruptive Genius”), Christensen even stands his ground on Apple.  Less expensive Android-based systems are now slowing the sales growth  iPhones and iPads and “killing Apple,” he claims.  “So I got it wrong; then I got it right,” he tells his interviewer.

My own take (regular readers won’t be stunned) is a sort of middle ground.  Big thinkers, even if they may be over-generalizing, are valuable in shaking up assumptions  — in Christensen’s case, the conviction that top companies with smart managers will stay strong and crush competitors.

Newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines had that sort of market dominance in the golden years of the 20th century.  Now both are fighting for their lives in the digital era, lest they become as Richard Nixon put it in the context of the wind-down of the Vietnam War “a pitiful, helpless giant.”

But I will applaud Lepore too, on the grounds that big thinkers and their big ideas need to be challenged and debated.  Christensen has mostly been lionized, leave it at that.

His skills as a writer help explain that level of acceptance.  While dealing in difficult concepts and occasionally slipping into business theory jargon, his writing is typically confident, clear and accessible.  That can sweep a reader along without a lot of pauses to  reflect on what Christensen may be leaving out.

Slowing down to analyze his paper applying disruption theory to the news business, for instance, I thought Christensen made the common mistake of an exclusive focus on holding and building audience with only passing attention to the importance of finding new ways to serve advertisers well.

At a Nieman seminar in 2013, Christensen said that he had been thinking about just what journalism and news does for its consumers.  He came up with three benefits: (1) find out what is true among competing claims. (2) help busy people unwind at the end of the day and, especially with ethnic publications, (3) generate pride, recognition and respect for a community.

The list is good but narrow.  It doesn’t really hit on the powerful appeal to users of being “in the know” (an old marketing slogan for my hometown Tampa Bay Times) whether for water cooler conversation or one’s own satisfaction.

I think Lepore misportrays Christensen as a dogmatist.  His less noticed follow-up book, “The Innovator’s Solution,” explores an obvious question left dangllng from The Innovator’s Dilemma.  How exactly do you makes an established organization good at innovation? Christensen explicates essential best practices like leadership from the top or heterogeneous project teams.

Also Christensen has started to consider instances in which disruptive theory may not be relevant. Hotels, for example, he told Harvard magazine, are not vulnerable to technological challenges and may occupy a particular spot in the basic-to-luxury spectrum indefinitely if management is attentive to sustaining improvements.

As for newspapers and the future of journalism debate, Christensen remains a justly  influential figure. His consulting firm, Innosight, worked on the American Press Institute’s 2005 Newspaper Next report – a disrupt-yourself wakeup call touting new business models that got a respectful hearing but not much action at the time.

The report has aged well, and a decade later the need for rapid digital transformation has become more orthodoxy than heresy. Though foot-dragging remains an issue.  Just this week, my favorite media analyst, Frederic Filloux, slammed French news organizations for half-hearted stabs at digital, and a lingering view that because their work is important, print newspapers will endure as businesses indefinitely.

The demography, technology and business pressures driving massive change in journalism (and journalism education too) are not going away.  Figuring how to put Christensen’s theory to practice will remain essential, though I will grant Lepore that his big idea is better treated critically than as gospel.

Update:  Christensen did reply in an interview with Bloomberg/Business week, published June 21.  Also Clark Gilbert, CEO of Deseret Digital Media and a former colleague of Christensen’s, critiqued Lepore’s article in a post on Forbes.com.

 

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