The Innovator's Dilemma un-debunked

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Massively disappointing article in The Guardian yesterday: John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, starts off promising to present a debunking of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. And the piece started promisingly.

But then this sleight of hand happens:

More generally, the Lepore critique prompted more self-aware folks to ask whether they should perhaps have been more discriminating in their use of the term. “In the past few years,” wrote one industry observer, Kevin Roose, “I’ve gotten literally hundreds of pitches for products billed as disruptive innovations. (My favourite? A wooden cuckoo clock, whose creator promised it would ‘add verve to more austere ambiences in search of a stylistic disruption’.) I’ve been invited to conferences on disruption, seen books with titles like Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic, and read about USC’s new innovation programme, which advertises a ‘degree in disruption’.” When everything is disruptive, Roose concludes, “nothing is. Which is exactly why it might be time to kill the word disruption altogether.”

When I first read it, I assumed that term people should be “more discriminating” in their use of was “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. But no, it’s the generic “disruption”. The article actually pivots at this point from talking about Christensen’s work to talking about “disruption” and its use and abuse in startup culture.

The entire basis of the “debunking” is one article by a historian (rather than say, a specialist in business) and Naughton’s dislike of the abuse the term “disruption” is enduring. In the end, he proves nothing, bar that startups abuse the phrase “disruption”, and that one historian has started a dialogue on the innovator’s dilemma. It’s a shame, because there is a dialogue to have here. But this wasn’t it.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.