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.
Three prominent political figures offered different answers during a spirited discussion Friday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. They agreed that that there are too many context-less statistics and too few ways to winnow the precise survey from the sloppy.
“We’ve stopped listening to the voices of the people — everything is numbers,” said Peter D. Hart, whose company polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal and who has worked with more than 40 senators and 30 governors. “All the media care about is the latest head-to-head” competition between candidates.
He said the polls have no “bandwagon” effect of driving more support to the favorite, saying he’s never seen the “undecided” vote break toward the winner. “We’re takers, not makers. We reflect public opinion,” he said.
Without a sense of public opinion, he said, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached. He added that “the public was way ahead of the politicians on opposition to the Vietnam War.”
Hart said he’s never seen public opinion change as rapidly as on the issue of approving gay marriage, saying public opinion helped shape politicians’ growing support.
Hart and former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley agreed that the media don’t know how to report and analyze a poll. “The problem isn’t the polls. It’s the use of them,” she said. “‘Horse race’ numbers are catnip to reporters.”
Differing with Hart, she contended that polls influence elections because “Americans love to be on the winners’ side.”
Crowley said polls are like tweets, and there’s nothing like talking to people to get nuanced views, as Hart said he was able to do at the start of his career.
Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore said, “In the world of [financially] starved journalism, polls are cheap journalism.” She asserted that pollsters directed opinion in support for the Iraq War.
Thursday night, she had told the Harvard audience, “We’re drowning in a sea of polls. Polls raise the pulse of democracy — they don’t take it. A fast pulse is not a sign of health but of distress.”
She added, “Polls drive polls,” causing a “bandwagon effect.”
Lepore and the other speakers deplored the plummeting response rate to pollsters. In the 1950s, she noted, there was a 90 percent response rate while now it’s in single digits.
Friday, she said Internet polling over-represents left-leaning young, white males.
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
David Skok sees his mission at The Boston Globe as helping to define the organization’s RPP — “resources, priorities and processes,” in the words of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.
“Clay’s theory would argue that that’s what forms the culture,” Skok says.
Skok discussed the Globe’s digital strategy at an appearance earlier today at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Before he began, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones announced that Skok, the Globe’s digital adviser, had just been named managing editor for digital — an announcement that was reported by Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin a few hours later. Skok has also been appointed general manager of BostonGlobe.com.
Christensen is the godfather of disruption theory — the idea that successful companies are vulnerable to competitors using low-cost technologies and ideas. Think of the way that personal computers brought down minicomputers and mainframes — or that once-lucrative classified ads were pretty much destroyed by Craigslist.
Skok told the Shorenstein crowd that he became attracted to disruption theory when he audited one of Christensen’s classes as a Nieman Fellow. He and Christensen later collaborated on a report about disruption and journalism called “Breaking News.” Last year I analyzed Christensen’s theories following a tough critique (flawed in my view) by Harvard historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.
“I sat in on Clay’s class and was immediately transfixed by some of the ideas and theories he put forward,” Skok said.
He added that though he largely agreed with the pessimism that pervaded the news business from a few years ago, since working with Christensen he has come to believe that “journalism will survive and thrive.”
Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”
Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.
Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.
Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)
Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.
And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.
Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:
The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.
The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.
But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).
Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:
I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.
As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.
“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”
Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”
CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.