Necessary Disruptions

Last year the New Yorker published an article about how Disruptive Innovations have failed and how the theory is bogus. It’s one article among a number that, to our thinking, completely underestimates the forward-thinking and world-changing power of disruptive innovation in business.

The long piece went into great depth about the emerging Disruption industry of consultants, the Disruption ethos prevalent in Silicon Valley, and the many Disruption discussions in boardrooms across the globe.

As practitioners of innovation methodologies, we were asked our take on the piece. The writer, Jill Lepore, takes the innovation author, professor, guru, Clayton Christensen, to task. In short, the article is more of an abstruse diatribe on theory, rather than a study of the application of disruptive innovation. Ms. Lepore claims that aiming for disruption is ruining what is left of civilization, that we are creating better gadgets, but not a better planet or better quality of life.

The article is a dense, yet potent read. While she makes some good points with flair rare for academics, the basis of her argument sits on shaky ground. You must understand that disruption—revolutions, not evolutions (think Skype or Netflix as opposed to AT&T buying Direct TV, for example) are needed in more sectors of the world more than ever. But, Ms. Lepore is correct that if the outcome is merely a better gadget, then it may not be worth much outside the bank.

This is the hard part, denial. If you think the world is not in crisis, you may stop reading now. However, we live in an era of change when most of our major systems have shown life-threatening stress. Look at the national debt, climate change, mounting tensions in the Middle East. One glance shows that all of the major systems – the environment, the economy, the educational system, the healthcare system, our coal-based energy system – are in crisis. Only brave, radical solutions can redeem them. Only alternative disruptions can make the types of changes that point a way out of these vexing predicaments. So, even if the methods first birthed a new gadget, then disruptive innovations can now be used to save these systems, the planet, our species, other species—and improve our quality of life. But there is a problem …

The stranglehold that the Industrial Revolution mindset has put on management has created an inflexible, linear choke on innovation. We use methods such as six sigma to wrest results out of a process, which does not allow for incremental (small) innovations to happen organically as part of the oral tradition of a culture. Therefore, businesses and organizations get stuck in a rigid rut and only a revolution can get them unstuck from this over-managed, overly rational way of doing things. We live in an era where our major systems are in crisis—and there is a distrust in human creativity to lead us out of these crises.

When orthodoxies and prejudices will not allow us to dynamically adapt, disruptions are a natural occurrence of a rebirth after a long period of stagnation. Because of the Industrial Era and its paradigm that has been taught in B-school and its shadow over work culture and culture at large, disruptions are the only way to improve the quality of life for the mass of humanity. There are many stories that Ms. Lepore could have quoted about disruptions in healthcare, in lending, in vertical tower farming to explore the positive side of this applied theory, but she was too busy stepping on Dr. Christensen’s mistakes to see the overall need for, and proof for the concept of, necessary disruptions in a world where we overly manage things into a state of paralysis.