Poor Clayton Christensen. As someone who arguably launched the modern era of innovation theory and research with his book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, and as a genuinely nice person by almost everyone’s account, he is receiving a tremendous amount of criticism, revisions and enhancements to his theory. Enough so that he recently wrote an article in HBR that amounted to a critique of those who, he claims, are using his definition of disruption incorrectly and who do not understand what it is really about.
Let it just be said that any time you are defending your 20-year-old theory by saying that people don’t really understand what you mean, you are on untenable ground. It is not the case that people don’t understand what Christensen means by disruption, or that it is unclear how he meant it to be used and applied. It is instead the case that, as with any 20-year-old theory, other very intelligent and creative individuals have examined it, seen its strengths and its flaws and have moved on, putting disruption theory it in its proper (and it turns out relatively small) place in the universe of innovation models, theory and understanding.
In the recent discussions, Christensen has been placed in the awkward position of having to argue that Uber is not really disruptive, a claim that only the most tenaciously dogmatic would ever make. A recent article by Michael Anton Dila makes the powerful case that the concepts of disruption are finding resonance in the world and are evolving far beyond what Christensen could imagine in 1995.
This is what happens to theories. Theories are made to be disproven, revised and built upon. They are stepping stones on the way to deeper understanding of what is actually going on. All too often, however, the person who started the process, the person who developed the seminal theory, hangs on too tenaciously to the original formulation and is not willing to adapt.
The theory of disruption isn’t invalid by any means, it is just being subsumed by a more comprehensive theoretical framework within which it has, as it turns out, a relatively small place. It turns out that there are all sorts of disruptions that are happening, many that Christensen didn’t account for in his original theory. The fact that the use of the term disruption has exploded in its use and usefulness demonstrates how valuable it is in describing what is happening. Instead of limiting our definition of disruption to a narrow meaning in a 20-year-old text, Christensen should embrace its evolution into something relevant and useful for today’s world. The original theory of disruption is being disrupted. And that is OK.