Snake Oil for the Innovation Age: Christensen, Forbes, and the Problem with Disruption

A new study by Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh in the MIT Sloan Management Review has marshaled the best evidence yet to show that Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation is deeply flawed. The study—which is put in its larger context in this insightful article by Evan Goldstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education—found that only 9 of 77 cases that Christensen used as examples of disruptive innovation actually fit the criteria of his own theory. Economists and business school thinkers have known that disruptive innovation was problematic for quite a while. For instance, the economist Kenneth Simon wrote a paper on the topic as early as 2009. But the dissent of these thinkers rarely entered public view, perhaps because speaking up would have gone against the academic code that forbids publicly attacking one’s own.

As Clayton Christensen Falls, So Fall His Popularizers

Indeed, the current assault on Christensen’s thought was led not by an economist or business school-type but by Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University. Lepore’s 2014 New Yorker essay, “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” set the business world on fire. Some were glad that someone had finally spoken up. Others thought that Lepore was basically right but that she could have done a better job with some of her points, should have talked to more experts in the field, and could have toned down her fiery rhetoric. Christensen and his defenders, to put it mildly, went on the attack. Christensen asserted that Lepore’s article was “a criminal act of dishonesty.” But the scales of truth aren’t tipping in Christensen’s direction.

What does the new study by King and Baatartogtokh mean? King has written another article with Brent Goldfarb that shows as many as 1/3 of studies published in management journals may be wrong or make inflated claims. (The King-Goldfarb article fits a recent genre of studies that have found similar problems in the psychology and biomedical fields). But King and Goldfarb take a charitable interpretation of how people end up getting things so wrong. In an academic world that is marked by constant pressure and that puts high value on novelty, scholars work and re-work their data until they find something interesting but which good analysis would show to be chance. “These are not cases in which you are trying to put something over on someone. You’re fooling yourself,” Goldfarb has said

Perhaps that’s right, but I think we also need to consider cases where individuals’ professional and financial interests conflict with good (social) science and where these interests lead individuals to continue pushing an idea even when it has been thrown in doubt. After all, Christensen himself has co-founded a consultancy, Innosight, and an investment company, the Disruptive Growth Fund, based on the notion of disruptive innovation. He has made millions on this concept.

We find even bigger problems when we look at the world of popular business publishing, however. Pop business books and magazines are a form of self-help. They purport to base their suggestions on the best available “facts,” but often the analysis undergirding these facts is not terrific. Few ideas have gripped the pop business world as tightly as disruptive innovation, perhaps, as some economists have suggested, because business leaders fear nothing more than being “disrupted.” If Christensen is threatened, so too are the popularizers of his ideas.

It is not surprising then that we see the business press lashing out at Christensen’s critics. In his Chronicle piece, Goldstein notes that a Forbes magazine writer wondered whether Lepore’s critique arose from personal doubts: “Was Lepore unconsciously projecting onto Christensen and his theory her own well-justified anxiety, panic, and fear about the ‘disruption’ of the humanities itself at Harvard?”

But now it seems like the tables are turned: the Forbes magazine writer was projecting onto Lepore his own well-justified anxiety, panic, and fear about the disruption of disruption because the disruption of disruption means that Forbes peddles snake oil.

A search for “disruption” on the Forbes website gets 6,039 hits with titles like “Tesla’s High End Disruption Gamble” and “The Physics of Disruption.” A search for “disruptive” garners another 4,704 hits with “A New Met Exhibit Shows Why the Saxophone Was One of the Most Disruptive Innovations in Music” and “Is Donald Trump a Disruptive Political Innovation?” Chunka Mui, a writer (with whom I’ve tussled before), has predicted that autonomous vehicles will unleash a market worth trillions of dollars and “create enormous disruption to current automakers business models.”  But as Goldstein and others have shown, Mui’s own master, Christensen, has made many terrible predictions when it comes to disruption. True disruption is rare, and prophesying it is a fool’s errand, especially when its underlying social science is so faulty.

There is no shortage of publications that promote bad science, whether that comes in the form of climate denialism, faulty studies of tobacco or sugar consumption, or fear-mongering over GMOs, cell phone signals, or fluoridation. Writers such as George Johnson, John Horgan, and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway ceaselessly point out such problems. What we have not taken note of as often is how bad social science is pushed by consultants, like Clayton Christensen, and business publications, like Forbes. Yet, their snake oil too has done real harm.