Disruption’s legacy

Clayton Christensen passed away yesterday. I never met him and he was by many accounts a warm, generous individual. So this is not intended as a personal attack, and I apologise if it’s timing seems indelicate, but as so many pieces are being published about how influential Disruption Theory was, I would like to offer a counter narrative to its legacy.

I think to give it fair credit, the initial idea of disruptive innovation was both powerful and useful. Coming as the digital revolution really began to impact upon every sector of our lives, people were looking for theories to explain the new logic of these businesses that seemed to arise from nowhere and achieve global domination overnight. How could Kodak disappear? Why did Microsoft become bigger than IBM? The concept of sustaining and disruptive technologies offered a means of explaining what was happening. I confess that used it myself a few time back in the 00s.

But some time around the web 2.0 boom, disruption shifted from being one possible explanatory theory to a predictive model, and then to a desirable business plan. These are very different things and they carry with them different responsibilities. Every start-up wanted to ‘disrupt’ an existing business. It shaped Silicon Valley thinking more than any other theory, and in 2020, I think we can review that and say it was almost entirely harmful in our relationship with technology. Here’s why:

  1. It legitimised undermining of labour – the fact that Uber, Tesla, Amazon etc all treat their staff poorly is justified because they are disrupting an old model. And you can’t bring those old fashioned conceits of unions, pensions, staff care into this. By harking to the God of Disruption, companies were able to get away with such practices more than if they had simply declared “our model is to treat workers badly”.
  2. It is a bad theory that didn’t know when to die. I know I said it was useful, but once it became over-stretched and applied everywhere it rapidly began to fall apart. Disruption as originally described rarely happened, but once it didn’t happen people just went looking for the next thing to disrupt. Like the appeal of transmuting base metals into gold, it was so powerful an idea that they didn’t question whether it was fundamentally flawed. As I’ve argued before, not only is it destructive to apply to education, it’s just a really poor explanatory framework in that sector.
  3. It dismissed existing experience and expertise. I won’t lay all the blame for the current distrust of expertise and veneration of ignorance at disruption’s door, but it played a part. Disruption demands that incumbents cannot make appropriate innovation (because they are focused on sustaining technology), and so it requires outsiders to make real change. They must be untainted by the old fashioned thinking that hampers the incumbents.  It explicitly prioritises an absence of domain knowledge and seeks to undermine expertise.
  4. It was uncooperative. When disruption became an aim, instead of a rare outcome, then it shaped how silicon valley approached business. If you want to disrupt a sector then the intention is to effectively eliminate it, as I said before, it’s an extinction event. You replace that sector or industry with a new monopoly. This model does not allow for cooperation and collaboration. There can be only one. It is essentially an ultra-capitalist theory, and could have only really come from the US. Who knows what a more socialist theory of technology might have given us?
  5. It wasted so many resources. Given all of the above, the amount of time, money, human effort that has been wasted in seeking disruption above all else is incalculable. It framed so much of the Silicon Valley mindset that they could not fathom different models, which might have been more collaborative, more empathetic, and more realistic.

You could argue that this is just an unfortunate side effect of people taking a good theory and mis-applying it. But Christensen was no innocent bystander in this, and actively sought to push disruption beyond its narrow limits. He is a warning of what happens, particularly in the US, when an academic gets superstar status. If you desire wealth, influence, your own institute then that desire works counter to many academic principles. It is not in your interest to carefully prescribe the limits of your theory, to seek contrary evidence, to be cautious about its application.

With the passing of its founder, I hope we can now also lay this theory and mindset to rest.

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