Why “Disruptive Innovation” Needs Disrupting

Walk away from that burning platform. You can be an innovator without panicking, as one critic of "disruptive innovation" argues.

So, what did you do to innovate and respond to disruption today?

If you’re a bit like me, you respond to a question like that with a sigh, perhaps a shudder. Innovate? Disrupt? I have a conference to help plan, a board meeting to prepare for, and two new programs to launch. The coffee’s barely kicked in and now I need to be Jeff Bezos too?

I’m sympathetic. So is critic and journalist Jill Lepore, who in last week’s New Yorker took a few whacks at the current fashion for “disruption” as a buzzword and a business model. “The time has come to panic as you’ve never panicked before,” she writes, mocking the kind of hyper-urgent, slightly threatening rhetoric that comes along with business gurus’ demands that you blow up what you’ve been doing, do something different, and then fail at it—because nothing shows you’re willing to be a success like failing. Or so the logic goes.

“Companies that were quick to release a new product but not skilled at tinkering have tended to flame out.”

Lepore’s critique focuses on the work of Clayton M. Christensen, whose influential 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is a kind of ur-text of disruptive-innovation leadership theory. Christensen’s basic argument was that companies that were good at minding their own gardens were often oblivious to the bulldozer that was coming to demolish the entire neighborhood. Thanks mostly to larger technological trends, he wrote, “well-managed companies that have their competitive antennae up, listen astutely to their customers, invest aggressively in new technologies…[can] still lose market dominance.”

Lepore’s skepticism about this runs on two tracks: First, that the things that hobble a company can’t easily be pinned to technological disruption, and second, that the companies aren’t hobbled as much as it appeared. She argues, for instance, that U.S. Steel wasn’t undone by newer, nimbler sheet-metal technologies, as Christensen claims; its struggles were largely to do with labor issues, and regardless, U.S. Steel is still standing. Similarly, the winners and losers in the disk-drive business weren’t clearly determined by disruption there. (Christensen fired back at Lepore’s article last Friday.)

Lepore’s conclusion? “[V]ictory appears to have gone to the manufacturers that were good at incremental improvements, whether or not they were the first to market the disruptive new format. Companies that were quick to release a new product but not skilled at tinkering have tended to flame out.” This is perfectly sensible, but doesn’t have the kind of zing you can build a Silicon Valley conference around. Who’s ready to register for Incremental Improvement 2015?

Lepore’s essay isn’t a call for timidity in business, at least not as I read it; it’s more a call to think of innovation in a way that doesn’t demand that you operate with a vague sense of panic. It’s also an argument that modest improvements are nothing to apologize for, if they are indeed genuine improvements. Late last year, writing about the ASAE Foundation’s Innovation Grant recipients, I argued that “innovation doesn’t have to be a paradigm-shattering event“—the funds went to projects that were modest but meaningful.

So why does the theme of “disruptive innovation” have such a hold on leaders (or at least leadership rhetoric)? Lepore argues that it’s partly a cultural issue relating to our uncertain times: “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror,” she writes. It’s also just the latest variation in the long search for solutions to the changes that will inevitably affect businesses. Christensen’s writing has been food for thought and an inspiration for many, but it’s not a business model or predictor of success; a Disruptive Growth Fund that he comanaged was shuttered after less than a year, Lepore writes, having lost 64 percent of its value.

“Innovate, innovate, innovate!” a former boss of mine once challenged me in a performance review. The prescriptions that followed, though, were fairly modest ones. Can we do this thing we’ve been doing differently and better? Should we make this other thing we know about part of what we do? A willingness to change and the nimbleness to do so will always be essential to success. But it doesn’t have to be the big, symphonic, radically disruptive moves that get you there.

As a leader, how do you think about innovation and disruption, and how do you put it into practice at your association? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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