Monday, September 28, 2015

Challenges of disruption

Clayton Christensen has come under some fire (summary here). It seems that his theory of disruptive innovation is flawed. At the very least, the examples that he uses to articulate and demonstrate his theory don't actually show what he intends.

Goldstein, in The undoing of disruption, claimed... actually, I don't know. I can't get access to it. Nuts.

Jill Lepore, however, provided some details in a New Yorker article called "The disruption machine." The author opens with a glorious image that provides counter-point to our pervasive techno-enthusiasm:

"In the last years of the nineteen-eighties, I worked not at startups but at what might be called finish-downs. Tech companies that were dying would hire temps—college students and new graduates—to do what little was left of the work of the employees they’d laid off. This was in Cambridge, near M.I.T. I’d type users’ manuals, save them onto 5.25-inch floppy disks, and send them to a line printer that yammered like a set of prank-shop chatter teeth, but, by the time the last perforated page coiled out of it, the equipment whose functions those manuals explained had been discontinued. We’d work a month here, a week there. There wasn’t much to do."

Fantastic.

Lepore goes on to describe the phenomenon of disruption and mentions the New York Times innovation report, which I actually quite like! The author goes on to make an important observation: "Replacing 'progress' with 'innovation' skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer."

Even better:

"The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth 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."

Many of Christensen's case studies do not actually illustrate his theories. Furthermore, his Disruptive Growth Fund was a bust. "Disruptive technology can reliably be seen only after the fact."

As an analytical approach, disruptive innovation is a historical approach that seems to ignore survivor bias. It ignores the case studies of organizations that have attempted to be disruptive and have failed spectacularly.

It seems that disruptive innovation isn't so much a strategy or even a theory, as it is a means of storytelling, a way of creating shared awareness and goals. There might, however, be some merit in the idea. I suspect that organizations often become blind because they are all-in on a particular approach or strategy. In essence, they end up locked into a local optima in a fitness landscape and are unable to perceive or explore alternatives. There is something to be said for A/B/n tests that enable some degree of hypothesis testing.

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