Debunking of disruptive innovation: Some social contextual, reflexive, and critical thinking implications

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation is enormously popular and influential. However, as described in Lepore (2014) and Goldstein (2015) it has little predictive power, nor does it fit the data—even for the cases Christensen used in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. There was critical analysis very soon after the theory was proposed; as that analysis has strengthened, it has been insufficient to push it into the dustbin of history.

So, a social contextual question: What would it take in practice for adherents of the theory–Christensen included–to let go of it? Christensen’s academic career has been built around his theory so we may be dismayed but not surprised by his resistance to letting go.
A reflexive question: What ideas do each of us have that are resistant to critical analysis? We may not be the originators of theories that are as popular and influential as disruptive innovation, but, in our own spheres — or as nodes in networks supporting more popular ideas — we may be contributing to resistance to change. Indeed, how can we detect theories, ideas, assumptions that are so widely shared we don’t see that we have them?
A question about critical thinking: Although the idea of disruptive innovation has been popular and in that sense has changed what people think, how can we be sure that it has changed the ways people think–i.e., thinking, the process? I ask this because the topic of a “Collaborative exploration” I have initiated is intended to refer to changing thinking the process, not the thoughts we hold to be true.

References with key quotes
Lepore, J. (2014). “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong.” The New Yorker(June 23).

“Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”

Goldstein, E. (2015). “The Undoing of Disruption.” Chronicle of Higher Education(Sept. 15).

“Christensen saw a pattern and created a theory around what he perceived, and everything he saw afterward fit that pattern, even when it did not,” he says. “All the evidence suggests that Christensen genuinely believes his theory. All the evidence also suggests that he doesn’t know how to reform his theory in the face of new evidence.”

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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