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Controversy in the Land of Disruptive Innovation

The recent debate between Harvard professors Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen over the latter’s theory of disruptive innovation hasn’t deterred companies from trying to pursue new breakthroughs.

Who could be against innovation? Enterprises embrace it as an indispensable ingredient of adaptation and growth, a key to overcoming uncertainty and competition and to ensuring survivability. Advocates often take their cues from The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

In the June 23, 2014, issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore, an American history professor at Harvard, lambasted the 1997 book and set off a summer of discontent in innovation-land. Her article, “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” picked apart the widely accepted theory of disruptive innovation — that successful, established companies can be blindsided by seemingly inferior products from inventive entrepreneurs — and the implication, as she presented it, that if an incumbent “doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt.”

Lepore contended that Christensen made “circular arguments,” disregarded case examples that didn’t fit his theory and failed to prove that it is predictive. “Disruptive innovation is a theory of why businesses fail. It is not more than that,” she concluded.

Christensen did not lack for defenders. His work is a rare example of rigorous research that “finds its way into mainstream business, guiding managers to make day-to-day decisions,” said Howard Yu, professor of strategic management at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, retired vice president of strategy and innovation at IBM, agreed with Lepore that “the concept of disruption has been overused and misused in business” but was “taken aback” by her attack on “a useful organizing framework for discussing the creative-destruction aspects of innovation.”

Christensen criticized Lepore for “breaking rules of scholarship” by ignoring sequels to The Innovator’s Dilemma and subsequent research that addressed her complaints — and for being mean. The contretemps offered more drama and played out more publicly than the typical academic debate. But it wasn’t much more than that. The corporate innovation beat goes on, and Christensen’s is hardly the only textbook.

Innovation is so entrenched in business strategies because there is more to it than the cycles of disruptive entrepreneurism that Christensen documented in the 1990s. The popular conception of freewheeling visionaries launching start-ups in garages distorts the reality of how disciplined, systematic and scientific the practice and pursuit of innovation have become.

Of course, good intentions do not guarantee best execution. Innovation requires patience and tolerance of failure — qualities that can go against the grain of profit-driven cultures. Art and serendipity at times will trump hard science and deep pockets.

Firms face such realities in organizing for innovation, and it is anything but haphazard. In a July webinar sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s System Design and Management program, Mona Vernon, vice president of Thomson Reuters’s Data Innovation Lab, said suggestion boxes and other loosely coordinated attempts to rally creativity result in “too much noise, too little value.” She advocated applying structured and replicable system architecture principles to innovation management and recommended the open innovation methodology championed by University of California adjunct professor Henry Chesbrough and a book he co-edited, Open Innovation: Researching a New Paradigm.

“Corporate innovation is not new,” Vernon pointed out. What’s new are “fast-paced environments,” marketplace complexity and technological change that have made innovation a CEO concern: “Initiatives are driven from the top.”

Steve Uban, a director of the Chicago-based Product Development and Management Association, endorses a portfolio- and risk-based approach to innovation, analogous to investment portfolio management. Uban heads the PDMA standards committee, which recently developed a standard it describes as “a disciplined structure in which to drive successful and meaningful product development within any sized corporation.”

Uban brushes the Christensen controversy aside, saying: “First you have to agree on what you’re talking about — what are the attributes of radical or disruptive innovation? Some say it should be untethered, but the process works best when it is managed.”

In consulting firm PwC’s annual CEO survey, published in January, a plurality of 35 percent identified product and service innovation as their main growth opportunity. PwC said the successful companies are “industrializing innovation,” adopting repeatable and scalable processes and “putting disciplined innovation techniques in place.” • •

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