When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’

Clayton Christensen. Photo (cc) 2011 by Betsy Weber.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s ideas about why some businesses adjust to competition and some don’t were so controversial that a battle broke out on Twitter within hours of his death last Friday at the age of 67.

“It’s easy for journalists to mock someone known for ‘disruption theory,’” said Nieman Lab editor Joshua Benton, “but Clay was a brilliant mind and one of the very nicest people I’ve ever sat across a desk from.”

That brought the first of several blistering retorts from Siva Vaidhyanathan, a prominent media-studies scholar at the University of Virginia: “He was not brilliant. He wrote simplistic, theological analyses of things he never understood.” Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review defended Christensen, telling Vaidhyanathan, “I think he had some insights about disruption that were worthwhile.” I jumped in on Christensen’s side as well.

Christensen’s best-known critic by far, though, is Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Nearly six years ago, in a long essay for The New Yorker, Lepore lambasted Christensen’s theories as flights of fancy with little evidence to back them up.

I had read Christensen’s first book about disruption theory, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and thought he had some provocative things to say about the struggling news business. So not long after Lepore’s piece appeared, I wrote a self-published essay for Medium about Lepore and Christensen’s battle of ideas, which I’m republishing here this week.

Obviously the world doesn’t look exactly the same in 2020 as it did in 2014. But if you’re wondering who Clay Christensen was and what disruption theory is all about, I hope you’ll find that this is a useful introduction. Continue reading “When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’”