Christensen: a big guy on the shoulders of giants

Everyone in the world of “innovation” knows the name Clayton Christensen.  Standing 6 feet and 8 inches tall (2.032 meters), he’s a big guy with an even bigger reputation. His Disruption Theory is currently the most renowned theory in its field, but fame has been a mixed blessing – it has also attracted confusion and controversy.

Every few years, for two decades, Christensen has seen new gunslingers lope into town and take shots at his work.  Some of it’s been the healthy style of peer review and critique all respectable research should face.  Constructive criticism is, after all, good for science.  Yet other criticisms have a dubious gotcha’ flavor, as petty attempted “takedowns” or “debunking” rather than legitimate discourse.  The favored tactic is to accuse Christensen of claims he never made, then to fervently debunk such fictitious claims, leaving informed bystanders dumbfounded.  Such pot shots have come from peers in his field, academics in other fields and non-academics with bones to pick.

It’s hard for bystanders to make sense of debates like these without a little context.  What ideas are under fire?  Where do they come from?  Before you can understand Christensen’s work it helps to learn the name Joseph Schumpeter.  Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the 1930s and 40s who noticed (I’m loosely paraphrasing here) two things:

  1. Incumbents tend to dominate industries until, once in a while, some new whopper of an innovation comes along and capsizes them; and
  2. The whopper is usually brought to market by a new entrant, whereas the old incumbents have a hard time responding because they get tied in knots around their own bureaucracies.

While people studied the rise and fall of businesses long before (and long after) Schumpeter, the field of “innovation” was, at best, an obscure academic niche in the 1930s. Schumpeter would certainly not have called himself an “innovation” scholar.

All this changed in the 1970s when a cadre of researchers began taking the domain of innovation seriously, although they called it by other names. The 1970s were the birth-time of innovation as a modern discipline.

Shoulders of giants

You can’t truly understand the 1970s cradle of innovation research without learning the name William Abernathy.  Abernathy was a professor at the Harvard Business School who became known for empirical studies of the automobile industry.  Looking deeply into quantitative and qualitative forces behind the decline of the US car industry, Abernathy emphasized (among other things) two points:

  1. The fall of the US automobile industry wasn’t an operational failure, but an innovation failure.  US car incumbents were efficient and intelligently managed, but new whoppers of innovation eventually came along and capsized them; and
  2. The whoppers were usually brought to market by new entrants (especially foreign car companies), whereas US incumbents had a hard time responding because they got tied in knots around their own bureaucracies.

In an effort to distinguish these industry-changing “whopper” innovations from ordinary day-to-day innovations, Abernathy referred to innovations as being “incremental” versus “radical.”  Abernathy also worked with James Utterback (formerly a professor at Harvard and now an innovation and statistics professor at MIT) to create the “Abernathy-Utterback” model, describing different phases that innovations, companies and industries find themselves in throughout their life cycles.

Many other scholars analyzed these issues in the 1970s, such as Robertson, Klein, Phillips, Mueller, Von Hippel, Tilton, Jenkins, Staples, Baker, Bower, Sweeney and Clark.  By the early 1980s, their findings circled around a central theme:

  1. Incumbents tend to dominate industries and have many advantages, especially when it comes to incremental innovations in their core markets until, once in a while, some new whopper of an innovation comes along and capsizes them;
  2. The whoppers are brought to market by either new entrants or incumbents (sometimes), while other incumbents have a hard time responding because they get tied in knots around their own bureaucracies; and
  3. Incumbents need to respond to whoppers with the right organizational processes, usually involving highly independent, autonomous, dedicated teams to embrace the whopper and ride the wave.

standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giantsThis research continued to blossom in the 1980s and early 1990s, and while it grew more mainstream it was still considered an academic sub-segment of operations or strategy departments.  Additional scholars such as Teece, Tushman, Anderson, MacMillan, McGrath, Moss Kanter, Burgleman, Thomke, Garvin, Henderson and many others joined the fray.  The roots of knowledge now ran deep, distinctions grew razor-fine and plenty of doctoral dissertations could be earned at the edge of the domain’s multiplying tendrils.

Still, consistent findings (reinforced over and over again) were as follows:

  1. Incumbents tend to dominate industries and have many advantages, especially when it comes to better performing innovations in their core markets until, once in a while, some new whopper of an innovation comes along and capsizes them;
  2. The whoppers are brought to market by either new entrants or incumbents (sometimes), while other incumbents have a hard time responding because they get tied in knots around their own bureaucracies; and
  3. Incumbents need to respond to whoppers with the right organizational processes, usually involving highly independent, autonomous, dedicated teams to embrace the whopper and ride the wave.

Then the world was introduced to Clayton Christensen.  As a doctoral student at Harvard in the early 1990’s, Christensen not only had a deep grasp of the work leading from the 1970s to his doorstep, but he was surrounded by many of the greatest greats.  He could ask Rebecca Henderson to help him think through a tough riddle.  He was mentored by James Utterback.  He could knock on Clark’s door and ask for advice.  This is the intellectual context Christensen had the honor of belonging to.

Christensen’s key contribution to this body of work (at least, if you ask me to put it in a nutshell), was to add empirical observations as follows:

  1. Incumbents tend to dominate industries and have many advantages, especially when it comes to better performing innovations in their core markets (labeled as ‘sustaining’) until, once in a while, some new whopper of an innovation comes along and capsizes them; and
  2. The whoppers often originate from the low-end of markets or from new markets altogether (labeled as ‘disruptive’), and usually involve different bases of performance than those valued in mainstream markets;
  3. The whoppers are brought to market by either new entrants or incumbents (sometimes), while other incumbents have a hard time responding because they get tied in knots around their own bureaucracies; and
  4. Incumbents need to respond to whoppers with the right organizational processes, usually involving highly independent, autonomous, dedicated teams to embrace the whopper and ride the wave.

Christensen’s insights were discovered using research techniques that were the gold standard of his field.  His charts look like those of his predecessors.  His vocabulary is that of his predecessors (FYI the word ‘disruptive’ was used by Christensen as a term of art, borrowed from earlier academic uses going back to the Abernathy-Clark model in the 1980s and even Schumpeter himself in the 1930s).  His frameworks build directly on those of his predecessors and cite them explicitly.  The categories of sustaining versus disruptive are directly related to the distinctions between continuous versus discontinuous innovation, and competence-enhancing versus competence-destroying.  Christensen didn’t sit under a Bodhi tree by himself, glance at a couple choice case studies, then cook up a theory out of the blue and declare it as a universal truth.

This matters because many of Christensen’s critics seem blissfully ignorant of the rich context surrounding his work.  As such, they embarrass themselves.

Scientists aren’t the same as business gurus.  Yes, scientists can be business gurus, and gurus can be scientists, but I’d like to draw a distinction.  Scientists know they’re just one link in a long chain of human discovery.  They try to maximize their lifetime contributions, but are the first to disclose imperfection while inviting improvement.  Scientists are constantly disclaiming risks, limitations, conditions, assumptions and defer to other experts with more knowledge in specific domains.  Science is about discovery and the diligent (yet usually unappreciated) quest for progress, no matter how small.  It’s about improvement, not perfection.

On the other side of town, perfection and absolutes are the game of “gurus” (at least as I’ll describe a certain kind of guru here).  These gurus prefer to be the beginning and the end of their chosen conversation.  They aren’t advertised as part of a chain, but as the whole thing.  They’re big on overconfident “steps to success.”  They usually exaggerate their contributions and are the first to hide imperfection while resenting better ideas (unless they thought of it first).  Gurus don’t like to disclaim risks, limitations, conditions or assumptions, and don’t like to defer to others unless it makes themselves look good.  The goal of guru-ness is the appearance of perfection and the attainment of a single objective: to sell consulting.

The irony is, Christensen is a scientist whose fame causes people to wrongly hold him to the phony standard of gurus.  This creates a gobsmacking explanatory burden for Christensen when his work is erroneously reenacted by novices before audiences accustomed to the slickness of gurus rather than the textures of science.  Imagine having to simultaneously bring critics up to speed on an entire subject matter domain CliffNotes-style, plus give a quick primer on the basics of the scientific method itself, plus tease out the substance of whatever specific objection is levied against his work, which was itself built upon a dense tapestry of specialized multi-generational, cross-disciplinary research.  It should be enough to respect his measured contributions as a scientist, critique his work by the fair standards of science (to which critics themselves must also be held), while grasping the sophisticated and nuanced technical context of his work.  Anyone unwilling to do this level of prep should probably stay out of the fray.

Just as nobody would take a quantum mechanics debate seriously if one of the debaters had never studied physics, you can’t legitimately chop away at Christensen in ignorance of the surrounding roots.  Many who think they’re attacking Christensen don’t seem to realize they’re often attacking the work of his many peers that go back for generations.  Science is a process, not an event.

In Christensen’s own words, “I would be honored to have them [other researchers in the field] identify explicitly any anomalies the theory of disruption cannot yet account for and to suggest improvements, because I merely have hoped to set in place a solid enough foundation on which subsequent researchers can build.”

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Sky

    I like the analogy to physics. It’s hard for people who only pay part attention to an issue to think they know more and make quick judgments. Not many know what they’re talking about most of the time. Thanks for the good point and background on a complicated and good issue. Also, I like the home page

  2. Kendra

    It’s a pity more people don’t have access to this kind of helpful background information on Christensen’s research. A credit to the depth of his work and his peers.

  3. Robert M Dodge

    I have the privilege of knowing Clayton. He captivates a group of people whom he addresses. To many of us lack to the depth of education to understand the wonderful work of this great man. His work leaves us wishing for more knowledge, but we must pay the price of study in order to be granted the depths of understanding demonstrated by Clayton.

  4. Jean-Paul

    Great piece. I came here from Christensen’s retweet of it. You are spot on.

  5. Winnie Thomas

    It was when I read Christensen’s work on Innovation that I discovered a new beginning and a logical confidence on how can startups take over the powerful. It also helped me in understanding non-business segments like politics and schooling and how can we bring a positive change in such institutions.

  6. Liang Sun

    It requires a certain level of intellectual capability and academic foundation to really digest and appreciate Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation, which Christensen himself reiterated many time that disruptive innovation is more about strategy, not technology.

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