If you have a spare 20 minutes spend it reading Jill Lepore’s latest article ‘The Disruption Machine’ in The New Yorker. It’s a fascinating critique of Clayton M Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation (as originally argued in The Innovator’s Dilemma). The piece undermines Christensen’s case studies from The Innovator’s Dilemma and argues that although useful in some circumstances, the theory of disruptive innovation is not good at predicting future outcomes and it is actually misleading in some circumstances:
'In fact, Seagate Technology was not felled by disruption. Between 1989 and 1990, its sales doubled, reaching $2.4 billion, “more than all of its U.S. competitors combined,” according to an industry report. In 1997, the year Christensen published “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Seagate was the largest company in the disk-drive industry, reporting revenues of nine billion dollars. Last year, Seagate shipped its two-billionth disk drive. Most of the entrant firms celebrated by Christensen as triumphant disrupters, on the other hand, no longer exist, their success having been in some cases brief and in others illusory.'
Lepore’s article is not itself without flaw and I wouldn’t subscribe to all her positions but what articles like Lepore’s do is remind us that our most valuable tool in business is our own capacity for critical thinking. It’s essential, no matter how attractive a theory is in explaining the woes or challenges facing us, that we apply rigour and critical thinking to our decision making and take ownership of them.
It should go without saying, but always be wary of books and theories that are marketed along the lines of “this will change how you do business forever”, it might change one industry or several, but there are no guarantees that its lessons are universal and especially that they apply to your industry or your business.