Thursday, June 26, 2014

Disrupting management ideas

Over the last days we have seen a captivating debate unfolding. Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker on the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ has garnered quite some attention. Not at least from its progenitor, Lepore’s Harvard colleague Clayton Christenen, who appears to be anything but amused.

Disruptive innovations - put simply - are new products or services that create new markets, while at the same time turning existing solutions to customer demands obsolete, and thus destroying existing markets and the companies that serve them. In his many books, Christensen initially developed the idea from a corporate context (such as his floppy disk, steel, or construction equipment examples) but it quickly branched out into other sectors.

The article is a fascinating read not just because it takes on an idea largely uncontested in academia and beyond. Moreover, the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ had quite a substantial impact on the real world. Lepore writes as a historian and delineates the superficial and ideological nature of the idea. The piece is also worthwhile reading as it exposes Christensen’s ‘case study’ approach (after all, a hallmark of its intellectual birthplace) to thorough historical analysis. The latter perspective debunks and exposes the data at the heart of Christensen’s ‘disruption’ theory as utterly wanting.

Now it is always fun to question conventional wisdom and powerful ideas, especially when they come from a Harvard Business School professor recently honored as the No 1 in the Top50 Thinkers ranking. As some of our readers might remember, we also enjoyed doing a similar job on his colleague Michael Porter’s ‘big idea’ on Creating Shared Value earlier this year. But there is the danger that those skirmishes just remain internal quibbles inside the ivory tower of which another former Harvard colleague, Henry Kissinger, once said that they ‘are so vicious because there is so little at stake’…

Lepore’s article clearly goes beyond that. Two things seem worth highlighting. First, she contextualizes a management theory in a wider intellectual historical context, and second, she shows that as such management ideas are deeply ideological constructs:
"Beginning in the eighteenth century, as the intellectual historian Dorothy Ross once pointed out, theories of history became secular; then they started something new—historicism, the idea “that all events in historical time can be explained by prior events in historical time.” Things began looking up. First, there was that, then there was this, and this is better than that. The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence. […] 
The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer. […] 
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."
Disruptive innovation in its reception in business, academia, public administration and politics had some rather devastating (side-)effects – as Lepore eloquently points out. The crucial lesson of her essay though lies in its unmasking of what sounds like a rather technocratic ‘theory’ as something that is deeply informed by a particular view of the world, by a particular normative take on how humans historically have evolved.
As the article points out, such functionalist and technocratic ‘theories’ totally ignore other dimensions of human life. ‘Disrupting’ – sold as a good thing and the natural way of how organizations evolve - ignores other important dimensions of human development, especially if the concept gets branched out and expedited beyond business to schools, hospitals, prisons, museums etc. The ethical implications of such a theory are totally ignored in Christensen’ framework – argues Lepore.

One central lesson of this article for everyone concerned with the role of business in contemporary society – be it academics, executives or politicians – points to the pivotal role of understanding the intellectual heritage and presuppositions of those core theories and ideas that have shaped contemporary social (incl. business) reality. In that sense, Lepore’s piece is a truly ‘critical’ contribution to management – and the set of historical ‘criteria’ by which she does the job should encourage particular management academics to move beyond the confines of their discipline. To understand the power of ideas we have to look at the broader picture of their origin, their contemporary drivers, but also their wider implications for society.

Photos (top by Andy Kaufman; middle by Nicolas Nova) reproduced under the Creative Commons license.