Disruptive innovation discredited? A personal assessment of the discussion.

The question posed by John Naughton in the Guardian is:

Clayton M Christensen’s theory of ‘disruption’ has been debunked. Can we all move on now, please?

He refers to a contribution of Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, titled The Disruption Machine. In both articles, the theory of disruption is attacked at three levels:

  • a historical level: starting with the initial meaning of the word innovation, a discussion whether “creative destruction”  equals “destructive innovation”, and some relationship between ‘the age of terror’ and the popularity of destructive innovation;
  • a critique of the case study method used by Christensen and others to support their theory; accordng to Naughton and Lepore the used definitions of success and innovation are crucial in the support of the theory by the cases. Another critique is the fact that if the chosen time horizon is longer, successful examples fail, whereas failling firms become succesfull in time.
  • not only in retrospective does the theory fail, accourding to the authors, the theory also fails to provide reliable predictions. Some investment fund of Christensen did not live up to expectations, several cases are described, in which the theory did not provide the right predictions.

Of course both Christensen (interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20, 2014) as his co-author (The Innovator’s Solution) Raynor (Of waves and ripples: Disruption theory’s newest critic tries to make a splash, Deloitte University Press) did react to these critical remarks.Christensen is quoted by Drake Bennet to have said:

And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways. In fact, every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.

Raynor uses a 13-pages paper to react. If we leave the historical and semantic discussions aside, the major defense is on the case study method used. Both Raynor and Christensen point out that positions shift over time, so the different cases selected by Lepore and Naughton have to be understood in their specific market position at that point in time; providing new case studies. Also, the predictive value of the theory is a question of timing and good interpretation.

For example Christensen says:

Just so you understand, disruption doesn’t happen overnight. There are now six or eight traditional department stores in existence in North America. Let’s just call it less than 10. And Walmart is quite a large company. Target is quite a big company. So has disruption been at work in the retailing industry? It’s a question. Macy’s still exists. So—Jill, tell me, what’s the truth? If you could just be Jill’s answer for me.

Raynor also takes the Kmart example, stating:

To claim that Kmart was not a successful disruptor because it is no longer a disruptor is like claiming Carl Lewis was not a champion sprinter because he is not now a champion sprinter.

From: http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Disruptive%20Innovation

With respect to the falsifiability of the theory, Raynor points out that several cases indeed follow the theory:

Case studies are extraordinarily useful when developing theory and limning a theory’s limits. Case studies establish a theory’s descriptive validity (there is such a thing as a disruptive path to success) and its explanatory power (here is why it works). Case studies cannot test a theory’s predictive power when a theory makes probabilistic predictions. That requires a statistically valid test of a theory’s accuracy on a population. Complaining that Christensen has not proved the predictive power of disruption based on case studies is to miss this critical distinction between two completely different methods, each attuned to a very different need.

Therefore, I would like to rephrase the question with which we started this blog:

Is there a general theory of business economics?

Much of the discussion above centers on the validity of the case study method and the generalization of the theory of destructive innovation. If I may take two (handpicked, quoting Lepore) examples:

  1. Retailers, quality and price fighters.

In line with the examples given by Christensen and Raynor, several stages can be distinguished in the development of shops: Until 1948 small specialized shops dominated the market. More general oriented shops took over the market for retailers, but from the 1960’s on the large chains of supermarkets controlled the market. In the 1990’s two price fighters entered the supermarket segment. Lowering services and prices they captured a stable part of the market. The existing supermarkets tried to introduce so-called ‘own brands’ and C-brand products, but were hindered by the large overheads and fixed costs to really compete in the lower parts of the market.

Now, twenty years later, the former price fighters move upmarket offering A-branch products and specialized products. Other price fighters are competing at the low price part of the retail market.

Some conclusions, which are consistent with the theory of disruptive innovation:

–          Established firms have difficulty with combining different business models within one organization (cq shop);

–          Established price fighters move upwards in the market, imitating the old firms;

–          New disruptive firms will emerge and the old disruptive firms will have the same difficulties to compete as the firms they pushed upwards in the market.

 2. Airlines: KLM, Transavia and Ryanair.

Last week KLM had to warn the shareholders that the expected profits of KLM and Transavia have to be adjusted downwards. Transavia, is a Dutch based low-cost airline operating as an independent part of the Air France-KLM group, bought in 1991 as answer to the treat of the disruptive treat of pricefighters as Ryanair and Easyjet.

At the same time rumors indicated that Airbus, after Ryanair’s proposal to have passengers on short flights standing up, was developing new chairs doubling the capacity of the airplanes.



With this example, we illustrate two mechanisms from the theory of disruptive innovation:

–          It is not easy to find a way for established firms to copy and counter the business strategy of the disrupting entrant.

–          That disrupting firms can evolve and keep disrupting the market, contraire to the theory of Christensen and Raynor.

The two examples can be criticized of being “handpicked” and being too shallow to describe the full complexity of the cases; both true!

Yet the point we want to make is exactly that: in different situations, different components of the theory are supported. Instead of quarreling over the historical interpretation of the word innovation, what is the truth or if IBM still makes a profit or not, other questions should be asked, for example:

1. Which kind of innovations are there and what are their relative importance in survival of firms?

2. Why do we see different trends and reactions in different case studies: what are critical success factors for entrants and established firms?

3. What is the effect on social welfare of a successful disruptive innovation? Should we try to increase the speed of these kind of innovation, or try to stop it?


Lastly, a critique on the way which Lepore tries to protect education and health care from Christensen disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation cannot play a part in these sectors, according to Lepore, because:

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors. Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.

She totally misses the point of the application of business economics to these sectors. Readers leave the traditional media, turning to the free information available on the internet, students turn to Moocs, discussion groups and peer pages to find the information they need to learn, patients lookup success-ratios of doctors, choosing the best. Governments have financial difficulties, making choses about what to finance, people and institutions which donate are becoming more critical. Right or wrong, the customization of society is increased by the possibilities of the internet and social media.

Doctors, teachers, journalists and perhaps even priests have to take the preferences of their public into account. Of course, people are still restricted by their budgets, by their social class, by their networks, like before; but loyalty has declined and partly replaced by economic trade-offs.

This makes strategic analyses of the offering of an institution versus the wishes of the purchaser even more important.


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