Fernando Fischmann

If It Isn't Disruptive Innovation Then What Is It?

25 August, 2014 / Articles

Is a new lexicon in disruption emerging? Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, recently interviewed Professor Clayton Christensen on the heels of Professor Jill Lepore’s now-famous rant about disruptive innovation in The New Yorker. The ensuing controversy put Christensen and his theory at the center of the storm. But his comments in the interview held some interesting clues as to how he sees the future of disruptive innovation. He admitted to the HBR editor-in chief that “the choice of the word ‘disruption’ was a mistake I made twenty years ago.” Christensen’s comment begged the question: if not ‘disruptive’ innovation then what should it called?

So casual was Christensen’s off-the-cuff comment about the term “disruptive” to Ignatius about its out-of-control usage and the term’s problematic nature that it likely flew right over the heads of many. But there it was. What was Christensen saying? Disruptive Innovation? A mistake?? A stark contrast to what Lepore and other naysayers would have you believe. But Lepore did raise some valid points in the academic pile-on in The New Yorker and perhaps inadvertently made a contribution to the theory as Christensen further acknowledged in his interview; since the introduction of the term in the mid-nineties the use of the terms “disruptive innovation” and “disruptive” have proliferated beyond all reason.

It follows that if everything is disruptive, then nothing is disruptive. From a branding point of view there are simply too many definitions and meanings for the family of disruptive nouns, verbs and adjectives. The imprecise usage, both explicit and nuanced, have hijacked a common and consistent understanding of the theory while diluting its intent, potency and development. Was there an alternative label floating around somewhere in the innovation space? One of the emerging candidates under consideration by Christensen is “quantum innovation.” While there is a quite a bit to be worked out and it is really a working hypothesis, the term quantum innovation starts to address some of the issues that have bothered Christensen and others. Particularly when it comes to innovation in non-traditional domains that impact the public good. In these domains, according to Christensen, rather than focusing solely on the technology itself “if we are to develop profound theory to solve intractable problems in our societally-critical domains we must learn to crawl into the life of what makes people tick.”




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