By now you may have read about the hand-to-hand combat in the hallowed hallways of Harvard.
In a scathing critique of Clay Christensen’s seminal work on disruptive innovation, Jill Lepore, a fellow Harvard professor, claims in a New Yorker essay: “It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.”
Christensen responded in an interview with Business Week saying:
“In fact, every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.”
Whoa! Let the fireworks begin!
Walking the talk
In the interview, Christensen doesn’t dispute the almost random use of the word “disruption” or the need to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. But he does set the record straight on many of Lepore’s drive-by claims, such as incumbents not disappearing in the retailing industry, integrated steel companies such as U.S. Steel still being dominant, disruption not happening overnight, about unionization as an explanatory factor, and the failed Disruptive Growth fund.
I did some quick research of my own research: Nucor (the disruptor) is the largest U.S. steelmaker in terms of market value with a market cap of $16 billion—four times that of U.S. Steel (the disrupted) with a market cap of only $4 billion. Nucor’s operating margin of 7.7% in 2013 was more than twice as high as U. S. Steel’s 3.4%. U.S. Steel has lost more than $900 million from 2010-2013 while being in the red every one of those years. Meanwhile, Nucor has been profitable every year with a net profit of $1.9 billion during the same timeframe.
And yet Lepore hangs her hat on U.S. Steel being “the largest U.S. producer of steel” (without saying on what basis) to accuse Christensen of ignoring factors that don’t support his theory.
Christensen is truthful in the interview. He openly admits to having missed the fact that iPhone was disrupting the laptop and was not a sustaining innovation against Nokia.
He says that he could list 10-15 problems that we still need to resolve, and if Lepore were “actually interested in the theory and cared enough about it to walk 15 minutes to talk,” he would have listed the problems with the theory for her.
“She [appears to have] only read one book at the beginning in the naive belief that the end comes out at the beginning,” fumes Christensen. “But because her purpose was to discredit me rather than look for the truth, she didn’t even look.”
The rest was unreadable
Lepore’s penchant for over-the-top theatrics is obvious very early on. She recalls finding a copy of “Steppenwolf” floating like a raft in a clogged sink. This was in the last years of the 1980s, mind you. Twenty Five or so years later, she still remembers reading the exact words on the cover: “In his heart he was not a man, but a wolf of the steppes.”
Then, dramatically, she adds: “The rest was unreadable.”
But amazingly enough, she could still read—on the cover of this unreadable, waterlogged book floating in the sink—that it was a Bantam Books edition, and still recall that fact 25 years later.
I was unable to retrieve the actual bloated book from the clogged sink at Polaroid (a “disrupted” company), but I was able to find two Bantam Books editions, one from 1979 and another from 1983, on goodreads.com website.
Assuming the book Lepore purportedly discovered in the bathroom was similar to one of these two covers, I am simply amazed that the words (“The world-famous novel of a man’s struggle toward liberation”) written just below the exact words she quotes were unreadable to her, but she was somehow able to decipher (and still remember) on a bloated cover the words “A Bantam Book” written in much smaller print just above the quoted words in the 1979 edition cover or running vertically and way off to the edge of the 1983 edition cover.
This whole unreadable theme is a setup, you see. Fast forward to the end and Lepore closes her diatribe with the “Steppenwolf” reference saying that “it is still available in print, five dollars cheaper as an e-book,” as if that in itself is convincing evidence of disruptive innovation theory’s failure.
Then she dramatically ends: “He’s a wolf, he’s a man. The rest is unreadable. So, as ever, is the future.”
As if implying that no bogus theory like disruptive innovation is going to make the future readable, Lepore moves on to pen the history of the national anthem in a column the following week, describing how the American flag “flew from the right-field pole, snapping in the wind like a whip” during the first game of the 1918 World Series, in Chicago.
It is remarkable what historians can find out.
After waxing on for the first two and a half pages about the wanton use of disruption, and not-so-casually dropping Michael Porter’s name, Lepore pulls out the dagger out of nowhere:
The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.
She conveniently forgets to mention Christensen’s scholarly article titled “The Ongoing Process of Building a Theory of Disruption” published in 2006 in the Journal of Product Innovation Management.
In this article, Christensen responds to the critiques head on while accepting some as useful additions or corrections and suggesting that others are ill-founded.
He recounts the development of the theory of disruption within the context of a model of what theory is and how it is built. He also addresses the concern about the model’s predictive ability and provides four publicly documented examples to show that the fear is unfounded.
On the contrary, Lepore takes random acts of other people under the name of “disruption” and blames them on Christensen. While it is true that “disruption” has become a buzzword, it is not Christensen’s fault that people have misused and even abused it.
So what could be Lepore’s motivation? Hard to say for sure, but I am going to hazard some guesses:
Attack Dog: Porter is on record, in a New York Times article on online education at Harvard, saying “Clay sees disruption everywhere.” Having worked for Porter (as an assistant to his assistant), Lepore may be in his camp. But I doubt that Porter would sic Lepore on Christensen. I hope Porter has better things to do than that.
Personal: Her tirade, while very well-written, seems rather personal. (“History speaks loudly, apparently, only when you can make it say what you want it to say.”) Those are serious accusations to make. Christensen is right. If you are going to ambush his life’s work, you owe him some professional courtesy—especially if you work within walking distance of him on the same campus. But Christensen says that he has never met Lepore, so how could it be personal?
Pressed for time: Writing columns while teaching and conducting research can’t be easy. Maybe she was just pressed for time and got something out quickly by the deadline. Given the length of it (more than 6,000 words) and the various references (although superficial) to Christensen’s work, however, this essay seems like a well-planned attack.
Notoriety: I have known of Christensen for at least 15 years. I have bought many of his books and have quoted him in my articles. I have heard him speak and even met him briefly at the World Innovation Forum event in 2007. Although she is a well-accomplished Professor of American History at Harvard and a contributor to The New Yorker since 2005, I had no idea who Jill Lepore was—until now. So, if notoriety was her motive, it is mission accomplished.
Charles Barkley is no stranger to drunken and overzealous fans accosting him. After he threw a man out of a window during a bar fight, a judge asked Barkley if he had any regrets. Barkley replied: ”Yeah, I regret we weren’t on a higher floor.”