Understanding the criticism of Christensen’s theories

In Understanding the complete works of Christensen on Innovation, I pieced together Clayton’s theories to be understood holistically – from the beginning to now. In this post, I review the criticism against his theories with the goal of further strengthening the understanding and the use of critical thinking when working with his theories.

As with most popular works, Christensen’s theories have been a target of criticism. In the earlier post, I briefly touched on some book-specific research to supplement and build on his work. Now, let’s review two of the most notable criticisms;

Understanding Criticism of Clayton Christensen's Theories
Understanding Criticism of Clayton Christensen’s Theories

1. New Yorker – The Disruption Machine (2014)

“The New Yorker article — “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong” — was written by another Harvard faculty member, Jill Lepore, a historian and staff writer at the New Yorker. In a breezy and distinctly nonacademic writing style, Lepore lambasted Christensen’s theory and some of his findings in “Innovator’s Dilemma,” most notably pointing out that a disk-drive firm that Christensen portrayed as a faltering victim of disruptive innovation actually survived and thrived after heated competition with upstart rivals.

She also questioned Christensen’s expansive application of the theory to fields beyond for-profit companies, such as higher education (as covered in Christensen’s coauthored 2008 book “Disrupting Class”) and health care (Christensen’s coauthored 2008 book “The Innovator’s Prescription”).

In an interview with Bloomberg-Businessweek after Lepore’s New Yorker piece, Christensen dismissed her criticisms and acknowledged he was “mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty — at Harvard, of all places.”

Today, Lepore only expresses regret that closer academic scrutiny of Christensen’s theory hadn’t been conducted before King and Baatartogtokh’s recent article.

“That evaluation has been a long time in coming,” she said. “For years, people who’ve pointed out the theory’s flaws, inconsistencies, and inadequacies have been shouted down or ignored, as if belief in disruption were a matter of faith and to question it on evidentiary grounds amounted to heresy.”” [Directly quoted from: ‘Disruptive innovation’ theory comes under scrutiny]

2. MITSloan – “How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation”? (2015)

King and Baatartogtokh (How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?) aimed to test the Disruption Theory’s “essential validity and generalizability”. To do that, they conducted interviews with each of the 77 companies discussed in The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. What they concluded is that many of those 77 companies did not fit four of theory’s key conditions and predictions.

Thus, King and Baartartogtokh, concluded with the recommendation that “stories about disruptive innovation can provide warnings of what may happen, but they are no substitute for critical thinking. High-level theories can give managers encouragement, but they are no replacement for careful analysis and difficult choices.”

Clayton Christensen responded to King and Baartartogtokh essentially shooting down the their criticism. First, he emphasized that the critics had done only 75 interviews where him and his team had conducted extensive company and industry-wide interviews to articulate their research. His second concern was that “the article doesn’t demonstrate a thorough understanding of how disruption plays out in different industries. And his last concern was that “the article claims to test the usefulness of theory of disruption, but it doesn’t actually do that. Instead the article provides a flawed test of a different question: do the examples cited in “The Innovator’s Solution” fit the criteria of disruptive innovation”

King did respond to Clayton’s above points and disagreed. The Boston Globe also did a follow-up on this conversation which you can read here.

How Christensen’s has Responded to the Critiques

Christensen has firmly disagreed with most of his critics in the “usefulness” of his theories. He has emphasized that “At the end of the day, the test of a theory is its usefulness, and many company executives have found disruption a powerful lens to help them respond to shifts in their industries.” [Source: ‘Disruptive innovation’ theory comes under scrutiny]

Besides the above, he has frequently said that he welcomes anomalies to his theory so that the disruption theory can continue to evolve for the benefit of everyone. Furthermore, in his notable Oxford Lectures, he shared how he has evolved and hopes to evolve his theory on disruptive innovation.

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