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The Disruption Machine
June 17, 2014 3:30 PM   Subscribe

What the gospel of innovation gets wrong. The championing of "disruption" in modern business is built around some very flaky research that does not bear out its sweeping conconclusions.
posted by smoke (54 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
And SV is already circling the wagons, with Andreessen attacking Lepore's background NCAA style.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:36 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I found the beauty of the takedown to be that absolutely no specialist knowledge was required to understand it, and that it revolved primarily around: "Things dude said happened either did not really happen that way, or are not at all representative of the broader industry."

It saddens me how disappointingly common cherry-picking is in nearly every sphere of public debate - in academics, public policy, and the world of business of course. I recently started listening to an interesting book, Junkyard Planet. I was almost unreasonably impressed that the author prefaces the entire book by noting that statistics about rubbish and recycling are extremely hard to come by, and that all statistics listed should be treated as nothing more than educated estimates - and that he used industry figures as he found them more accurate and less agenda-driven than NGO estimates.

I can't imagine what it would be like if journalists applied a similar degree of skepticism and reasoning to the "X, Y, Z will cost/bring the economy P million, billion, gajillion dollars" - headlines that are regularly used with a statistical base about as solid as fairy floss.
posted by smoke at 3:49 PM on June 17 [8 favorites]


What Anderssen said ("What does Jill Lepore, Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale, think about quantum entanglement?") is a perfect example of an ad hominem argument: it addresses exactly nothing of substance in her article.

I'm old enough to have seen these business theory fads come and go - pursuit of excellence, Japanese-style, "reengineering the corporation", and now disruption, to name a few - and I think it's clear that they are more about people's powerful hunger to believe that a simple idea can change everything and make you a success than they are about their purported subject matter.
posted by thelonius at 3:51 PM on June 17 [14 favorites]


I found the article fascinating. As a worker in the tech industry, "disruptive innovation" is touted as the miracle cure to everything - despite the very real evidence that it very clearly is not.

I enjoyed this bit -
"The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence."
posted by dotgirl at 3:52 PM on June 17 [21 favorites]


Slate responds with both agreement and criticism for different portions of the article.
posted by fremen at 3:57 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I'm old enough to have seen these business theory fads come and go - pursuit of excellence, Japanese-style, "reengineering the corporation", and now disruption, to name a few - and I think it's clear that they are more about people's powerful hunger to believe that a simple idea can change everything and make you a success than they are about their purported subject matter.

Yeah, and Andreessen probably knows this, but he needs people to believe it so that he can continue using their naive "hunger" to fuel his money-printing machine.
posted by junco at 3:58 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


This is really good at exposingthe shallow, blinkered, historically ignorant mentality of the Tech billionaires.
posted by The Whelk at 4:01 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]






I saw this on Twitter earlier today, read it at the RMV, and had been just about to post it as an FPP when I saw it already on the front page. This point of smoke's is right on:

I found the beauty of the takedown to be that absolutely no specialist knowledge was required to understand it, and that it revolved primarily around: "Things dude said happened either did not really happen that way, or are not at all representative of the broader industry."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:06 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


This is really good at exposingthe shallow, blinkered, historically ignorant mentality of the Tech billionaires.

And perfect PR for my new history-focused "big picture" MOOC targeted towards those working in the tech industry!
posted by weston at 4:07 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Some weird framing in that Slate response.
posted by Iridic at 4:12 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


that was glorious. nothing satisfies more than a well-researched dismantling of guru crap.
posted by young_son at 4:28 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Some weird framing in that Slate response.
posted by Iridic at 4:12 PM on June 17 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]

Yeah - weird, obnoxious and almost a derail (I mean the Slate article itself, not the MeFi mention of it!)... tries to make it about Slate.com vs. the print New Yorker... overlooking how most people who have already read the New Yorker article would have read it online (it's not paywalled) on the New Yorker website.... most (or even all?) New Yorker print subscribers won't get the print magazine until later this week.
posted by Bwithh at 4:29 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


"Disruption" is the path to success when you admit there is no real path to success other than Killing the King and becoming the New King. And then, it inevitably proves the truth of The Who's greatest line: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:33 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


A thoughtful reply/disagreement with Lapore at Vox.

Specific examples aside, Christensen's insights and their applicability are based on to two key factors: customer preferences and incumbents' balance sheets. Lepore's piece doesn't understand this. Regarding journalism, her plaintive cry doesn't actually address where (and why) consumer eyeballs are going. And any publicly-traded company's inability to cannibalize its own business is self-evident. Not every "disruptor" will succeed, but almost every incumbent is at least vulnerable when technology and/or consumer preferences change.
posted by twsf at 4:36 PM on June 17


I found the article fascinating. As a worker in the tech industry, "disruptive innovation" is touted as the miracle cure to everything - despite the very real evidence that it very clearly is not.

Yes. Until recently I worked for an IT company - arguably the oldest in the world. For several years now they had been absolutely harping on about innnovation and the need to be innovative (internally, that is). It cracked me up, because, whilst some of our products were innovative, the organisation itself was resolutely not - and I would argue that our clients never hired us for innovation, but because of our perception as a very expensive, but safe and conservative pair of IT hands.

Further, internally, we were extremely hierarchical, process-driven and bureaucratic - like most really large, really old organisations. Innovation was not encouraged at all at a structural level, and the company was absolutely not prepared to weather the high rate of failure that was an integral part of innovation. Indeed, it was almost comical, how failures were buried so quickly and efficiently, never spoken of again and widely ignored (something the article also mentions).
posted by smoke at 4:36 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I disagree with a lot of Lepore's position, but my gods, that Slate author is quite the douchecanoe, isn't he?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:36 PM on June 17


Okay, I had a seminar on innovation with Clay during my PhD, and studied a related field with lots of the other key academics who research innovation. I think this article is totally fair to Silicon Valley and totally unfair to Clay and the concept of "disruptive innovation" as used in academia. (I do not research the topic anymore, so I have no particular dog in this fight)

Yes, "disruptive innovation" is based on case studies, but Leporte is completely off base when she says that "The handpicked case study, which is Christensen’s method, is a notoriously weak foundation on which to build a theory." In fact, handpicked case studies are a terrific way to build initial theory. In fact, one of the most cited articles is recent social science discusses exactly this point. Case studies are terrible at proving theory, but they serve as a great way to think through a problem.

The reason they are bad at proving theory is exactly the issues that Leporte raises: establishing clear historical facts is hard, and sometimes slippery. I think she has some valid points on the history, but does miss the fact that there is a difference between firms and individuals, and that fact that Shugart had to start multiple firms to compete in hard discs was the point - the organizations couldn't always deal with technological change.

However, she makes it seem like academics (and Clay) basically stopped working on the topic in 1999. One need only look at the Google Scholar cites to see that this is wrong. Since Clay's initial book, a huge amount of empirical evidence has been amassed on this topic, and discussion has become a lot more nuanced. We talk about modular, sustaining, incremental, and discontinuous innovation, and about how to manage the issues that cause firms to fail to innovate: absorptive capacity, ambidexterity, and problemistic search on rugged landscapes. I throw out this jargon not to be overwhelming, but because these are, by and large, ideas that have followed on the work of Clay (and other scholars working on the topic at the same time). It is incredibly unfair to point at one concept, as introduced in one book, by an academic with a long career and yell "the emperor has no clothes!"

Now, the criticism of the popular view of disruption strikes me as right on target, but I think it is like a lot of academic topics that become part of the pop intellectual landscape. They quickly become cultural shorthand with little to do with the original ideas. For what it is worth, Clay is a humble guy who has never seemed to claim that he has it all figured out, and, quite frankly, no one in academia feels like "disruptive innovation" as he introduced it is still at the cutting edge of theory.

That being said, it is still a powerful way of thinking about a really, really important question: "Why don't incumbent firms always win?" Clay was one of the first people to ask why firms with the best people and most resources don't innovate over and over again: why did Kodak fail to create digital cameras? Why did DEC not come up with the PC? Disruptive innovation is one piece of the answer to this puzzle, and to attack it in isolation, or to blame Clay for annoying startup guys, seems disingenuous.
posted by blahblahblah at 4:37 PM on June 17 [23 favorites]


that Slate author is quite the douchecanoe, isn't he?

Has there been ANY Slate article linked here for which you COULDN'T say that?
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:44 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Slate should be the mass noun for douchecanoe.

A slate of douchecanoes
posted by wemayfreeze at 4:53 PM on June 17 [23 favorites]


why did Kodak fail to create digital cameras?

kinda incidental but actually, Kodak both invented, and sold, the first digital camera.

I agree with some of what you say, blahlalala, I suppose my problem is, like lepores, disruption used as a predictive tool. I think it's utterly useless for that, and question how relevant its study is for must businesses.

I feel it ignores the vast majority of businesses, focusing mostly on extremely profitable companies that often have near monopolies, at expense of a phalanx of failed companies -both disruptors and disruptees - and the vast majority of companies that post unspectacular profits and are not really touched by disruption in any meaningful way at all.

The fact that many companies disrupt, and still fail, or don't disrupt and still succeed demonstrates how limited a singular focus on disruption can be. I'm very wary of rules or generalisations, extrapolation tends to elide complexity and uniqueness. Historians have by and large learnt this lesson, as have most of the social sciences.

I also feel academic standards in business academia are frequently much lower, sometimes jaw droppingly so, especially when the conclusions align with what the business world wants to hear. Obviously, there is still a lot of good scholarship in business academia, but I find it doesn't get as much attention - not very disruptive, I suppose. ;)
posted by smoke at 5:19 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


Innovators Dilemma, short form: companies reach a local maxima of profit and are not motivated to push through the surrounding minimas to a global maxima. If they are too far away from the global maxima to jump onto it when someone else finds it, they will die. If you already know where the global maxima is, then it is easy to predict which companies are too far from it. Unfortunately, effectively nobody knows this except in hindsight.

that fact that Shugart had to start multiple firms to compete in hard discs was the point - the organizations couldn't always deal with technological change.
Or it just says that individuals who start companies and sell them can't always deal with not owning their own company, and Shugart himself was a brilliant guy who could have created those wherever he wanted to work.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:24 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I also feel academic standards in business academia are frequently much lower, sometimes jaw droppingly so, especially when the conclusions align with what the business world wants to hear. Obviously, there is still a lot of good scholarship in business academia, but I find it doesn't get as much attention - not very disruptive, I suppose. ;)

Okay, so I am going to disagree with you pretty strongly here, though I am admittedly biased. The acceptance rates for the top journals in our field are around 6%. Business schools are where a lot of the action is sociology, economics, and social psychology are as well. I am not sure what standards or work you are thinking of, but, man, I wished we had lower standards. Tenure would be a lot easier!

Also, as a researcher in a business school, there is literally no pressure from the business world to tell them "what they want to hear." I have peers in my department working on income inequality, gender discrimination (also a topic of mine), and the fact that, in the end the end, CEOs don't matter that much - none of which is remotely pandering. In fact, academic advancement at most schools does not even consider business world impact (for better or worse). No one is writing "Who Moved My Cheese" at business schools.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:33 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


From Lepore's article:
Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, who blog for
Forbes, insist that we have entered a new and even scarier stage: “big bang disruption.” “This isn’t disruptive innovation,” they warn. “It’s devastating innovation.”

Homer: "There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!"
Bart: "Isn’t that the wrong way?"
Homer: "Yeah, but faster!"
posted by dhens at 5:33 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Okay, so I am going to disagree with you pretty strongly here, though I am admittedly biased.

You're right; it was an unfair thing to say based on unrepresentative experience. I do think, however, it's also unfair to expect Lepore to have done a survey of the entire field in one short New Yorker article, and I don't think that's what she was trying to do. Really, she examined a foundational text for a very popular theory and found that most of its signature examples were deeply flawed and/or distorted to fit the hypothesis - which is enough.

Perhaps a more fair thing to say would be: Celebrity academics and their texts deserve extra scrutiny, as their prominence is frequently more strongly connected to society's current values and desires than merit, academic or otherwise - and this is not limited to the field of business.
posted by smoke at 5:40 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Having read both the Lepore New Yorker article and the self-described "snarky" Slate article by Will Oremus, I think we have, ladies and gentlemen, a perfect example of the difference between the old journalism and the new. The latter is well researched and cogently written, while the latter, while arguably clever, is thrown together to meet the deadlines of the news cycle. Oremus' even suggests it's better to read his version since it is so much quicker.

God save the New York Times.
posted by Jeff Dewey at 5:47 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Having read both the Lepore New Yorker article and the self-described "snarky" Slate article by Will Oremus, I think we have, ladies and gentlemen, a perfect example of the difference between the old journalism and the new.

I disagree. I think it illustrates the difference between a good journalist and a hack, a distinction that existed even in the halcyon days of print media. There's nothing new about that.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:52 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I can fully agree with you on that point smoke. I would just say that most business books that get popular are not written by academics. So there are very few celebrity academics. I remember that someone made a similar comment when I made a post a few years back on the shortage of business school professors. So I will just say that if it was easy to publish in the top journals we would see more bleed over from "tougher" disciplines with fewer job openings and lower salaries.

I am a business professor and I even have written one article on an innovative area (the birth of the PC industry). I would have to almost fully concur with blahblahblah above that no one working in the field thinks that disruptive innovation is a major theory. It had an impact and it spurred some research, but it was really just one academic paper and the book. The major value was in asking that question regarding why incumbents fail was important.

I also think people should take a look at this response by Joshua Gans who makes some good points.
posted by bove at 5:53 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Also, as a researcher in a business school, there is literally no pressure from the business world to tell them "what they want to hear."

Do you also teach at a business school? I have a hard time believing that employment at a business school (as opposed to another research institution) is in no way dependent on convincing future business leaders that they are getting an exceptional experience for their six-figure tuition bill. This is a somewhat different skill set from being able to publish papers in prestigious journals, although obviously there is some overlap.

From my experience charisma is valued everywhere, but much more in a business school setting than elsewhere.
posted by leopard at 5:59 PM on June 17


That was a good read from Gans with the economist perspective on the issue, thanks; I find him consistently interesting.
posted by smoke at 6:01 PM on June 17


On the other hand, I thought that Vox piece was full of the same question-begging that undermined Christensen's work in the first place.
posted by smoke at 6:10 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


We've got a great slate of douchecanoes lined up for the Contrarian Stage at this year's RibFest! Oremus will pump up the crowd with a question-begging apologia for Google, and then Ruth Graham will perform her ubiquitous new hit piece, "Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books."

Next, William Saletan--yes, Saletan's returning to RibFest! We wooed him back from the Grove County Pork Days Festival with a higher honorarium and complementary raffle tickets--Saletan will scratch out some sick speculations about a racial basis for intelligence. Then, when he starts in on inner-city schools, his old friend Matt Yglesias will be lowered to the stage on wires for a surprise duet! The audience will go insane!

Matt's going to act like he's only there for that one bit, and the way we've blocked out it he's actually going to leave the stage for like five minutes, while the lights slowly come up and roadies start coming on to break down the equipment. But then...fireworks! Strobes! And Matt runs back in silver leggings and nothing else, and he wrests the mic out of a roadie's hand, and he launches into "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's OK." Best RibFest ever.
posted by Iridic at 6:21 PM on June 17 [9 favorites]


We've got a great slate of douchecanoes lined up for the Contrarian Stage at this year's RibFest!...

Oh dog, what have I begun?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:24 PM on June 17


Do you also teach at a business school? I have a hard time believing that employment at a business school (as opposed to another research institution) is in no way dependent on convincing future business leaders that they are getting an exceptional experience for their six-figure tuition bill. This is a somewhat different skill set from being able to publish papers in prestigious journals, although obviously there is some overlap.

Yes, I am on the faculty, so I teach at a business school - MBAs, Executives, and Undergrads. I have even won teaching awards.

And I have to say, this is really cynical, and, fortunately, not true. It is not true in ways both good and bad.

Business school academics are like any other academics, people who spend years getting a PhD in a field with a plan to do original research in it. So, the bad way it is not true is that, as in most academic fields, a lot of business school professors are mediocre teachers, and teaching is just one of many criteria that might matter in advancement. Most professors don't exude charisma or make students feel like masters of the universe, no matter how hard they might try. We really are mostly just like other academic programs.

Second, the good way that this is not true is that most business academics are not jaded panderers whose only goal is to tell MBAs how special they are. We are all social scientists who went into this field because we care about it, and, as a generally rule, we care a huge amount about educating students. Educating them does not mean telling them how great they are, any more than it does in any other academic field. We want our students to be critical thinkers, to understand context, and to (yes, shockingly) be socially aware and active. We don't teach Ayn Rand or walking on hot coals. We believe students pay the big bucks to both get credentialed and to learn. If someone pandered in my department, they would be mocked merciless and told to stop by the higher ups.

Seriously, take a look at the syllabi from Wharton to get a sense of what is taught at business schools. This isn't summer camp.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:41 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


Thanks blahblahblah, I appreciate the perspective.
posted by leopard at 6:47 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


In 2007, Christensen told Business Week that “the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,” adding, “History speaks pretty loudly on that.” In its first five years, the iPhone generated a hundred and fifty billion dollars of revenue. In the preface to the 2011 edition of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen reports that, since the book’s publication, in 1997, “the theory of disruption continues to yield predictions that are quite accurate.”
Wow!
posted by spork at 6:56 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


This article is great. This thread is great. But I hope nobody tells the people who fund the start up I work for that innovation isn't the most important thing in the world otherwise they might cut us off.

Meanwhile, celebrity startup the reality show is surely only a few months away.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:17 PM on June 17


The Baffler: Friends without Benefits
It is an axiom of our age that a good crisis is a great opportunity, and nowhere is this belief more strongly held than in our nation’s beloved tech sector. San Francisco has a housing crisis; one startup founder aims to do his part by renting his couch in return for “$900 plus, hopefully, 20-25 hours web development/mo.” America has an (un)employment crisis; maybe one company can help.
Charles' Diary: A footnote about the publishing industry
If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren't immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he'd gone after groceries he'd be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

But the trouble with disruption is that it's dangerously close to detonation. You can end up destroying what you sought to shake up and take over.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:24 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


one startup founder aims to do his part by renting his couch in return for “$900 plus, hopefully, 20-25 hours web development/mo.” America has an (un)employment crisis; maybe one company can help.

I'm only half-joking when I say I feel like indentured servitude will be making a comeback soon.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:40 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I'm only half-joking when I say I feel like indentured servitude will be making a comeback soon.

Never happen. Indentured servitude was a contract guaranteeing you a job for the duration of your indenture. Doesn't mesh well with right-to-work and at-will employment.
posted by murphy slaw at 9:52 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


While we're business mythbusting. In Praise of the Boring Stuff:
[V]ariation among middle managers has a particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.

[I]t is the individuals who fill the role of middle managers – the “suits” – rather than the creative innovators that best explain variation in firm performance.
Startup Myths:
...the number of people setting up companies has nothing to do with the creation of innovative high-growth firms. Increasing the former doesn’t make the latter any more likely.

...high-growth startups rarely come from nowhere. They are usually the descendants of large firms.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:02 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Hey TheophileEscargot: the first article you posted is citing one of my papers! Very cool to see.

Um, what I mean to say is that those are high quality links.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:10 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I'm not in love with anything about the Slate article but I took the framing to be intended as a joke - "hey I got your faster, cheaper but lower quality alternative right here! Get it? Disrupting journalism here get it?!" And not so much a serious bald-faced assertion of Slate's disruptive dominance.
posted by nanojath at 6:13 AM on June 18




Creative disruption is just too anodyne. I much prefer 'Schumpeter's Gale' because it highlights the negatives of disruption. Sure there is some positive local economic value in the destruction caused by the damage of a gale being repaired but there is also the destruction and in the broader contest there may just be wealth transfers rather than value creation.
posted by srboisvert at 6:44 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


I haven't had a chance to read the whole article but I did skim it so you all can yell at me if I'm wrong but...

Is it just me or does it seem that the article is arguing that innovation is bad. Especially rapid innovation. If that's the case then I don't agree. Our economic systems might not be well suited to handle rapid innovation but that doesn't mean that we need to impede progress to protect outdated economic systems. We need to figure out new economic systems and let progress happen.
posted by I-baLL at 7:53 AM on June 18


I'm only half-joking when I say I feel like indentured servitude will be making a comeback soon.

Went would businesses need indentured servitude when they when they have unpaid internships? Same savings, more flexibility.

No, where the real employment innovation will come is when they figure out how to do easy, large scale prison employment. Then we'll have maybe a third of the work force in prison.
posted by happyroach at 9:14 AM on June 18


Define progress. Are you changing something to improve it, or are you doing so just for the sake of change? Innovation for the sake of novelty is dangerous, especially if it's not done with consideration for the existing ecosystem as a whole.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:03 AM on June 18




^ this is very worth of a post by itself
posted by young_son at 5:22 PM on June 18


You should post it - I have so many things already.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:01 PM on June 18


Clayton Christensen responds to Jill Lepore
posted by chavenet at 1:36 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I thought that interview was pretty weak sauce, and encapsulates a lot of the criticisms Lepore originally was levelling. I mean, according to Christensen, any time a business succeeds it's because it's a disruptor, and any time it fails, it's being disrupted. Often both at the same time. His defence of the iphone and the unions in the steel industry are particularly egregious.

I mean, I'm all for applying different critical or analytical lenses in order to gain insight, but his focus is so circumscribed, his view of the forest is being disrupted by all the trees.
posted by smoke at 3:51 PM on June 20


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