legal disruptionJill Lepore (a Harvard history professor) has launched a broadside attack on Clayton Christensen in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s a lively piece and highly entertaining if you go in for intellectual smackdowns. And now Christensen has fired back with a response of his own giving us all choice ringside seats for a heavyweight bout between two Harvard dons.

Their sparring is of more than passing interest to us at Good2bSocial. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma is considered one of the foundational texts of the social business movement so I guess you could say we have a direct stake in the outcome. Christensen’s book was one of the first to sound the alarm (and sell millions of copies along the way) about the challenges faced by incumbent market leaders in dealing with the disruptive effects of business start-ups, and as such it has sparked many highly lucrative consulting assignment for McKinsey and others. If nothing else, Christensen tapped into the zeitgeist of recent years — the high-anxiety of those who fly in business class — with case studies that illustrated the perils to management of doing nothing as well as the dangers of doing what seems to be the sensible thing in the face of a disruptive challenger.

Lepore’s major critique of Christensen rests on what she sees as the shoddiness of his research. She calls him out for getting the basics wrong – misidentifying Seagate and Bucyrus as doomed market leaders when they have both gone on to retain market dominance in the face sustained attack from innovative new entrants. And she skewers Christensen for his theory’s lack of predictive power – the best evidence of which is the complete failure of the investment fund Christensen established to market test some of his ideas.

But Christensen is really no more than a warm up bout for Lepore – her real target seems to be the broader movement – the Gospel of Innovation and Disruption – which she identifies as a prevalent strand in current American thinking, not just in business-bestsellers but as a meme spreading about our culture more generally; it’s a tendency that’s become evident in places as diverse as the HBO sitcom Silicon Alley and appears as a major influence shaping the recently leaked Innovation Report from the New York Times. Lepore sees the same sloppy thinking at work, in the way the beneficial effects of innovation and disruption are often exalted, as if disruptive innovation is a positive goal in itself, or as if it will somehow provide an adequate explanation or understanding of the dynamics of the underlying change. In Lepore’s own words:

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

I will leave it to others to sort out the merits of Lepore’s critique of Christensen’s scholarship and methodology. What I really want to respond to is the broader point she seems to be reaching for here – arguing that there are shortcomings in the way disruptive innovation is viewed as a goal in itself, or used as a basis for decision making, as a field of scientific inquiry or as a method for explaining change or predicting a particular outcome in any given situation.

All of which may be true but also entirely misses the point. No matter how flawed disruptive innovation may be as an academic or management theory, it is nonetheless an incontrovertible fact of life. The accelerating pace of technologic and economic change is a force that has been let loose upon the world much like Shiva the Destroyer. As such, it is neither good nor bad. It merely accurately describes the reality on the ground in the business world today. Like it or not, The New York Times feels a pressing competitive challenge from the likes of BuzzFeed and HuffingtonPost. Merely saying it isn’t or shouldn’t be so doesn’t make the challenge go away. To suggest otherwise is simply an exercise in the same sort of circular thinking that Lepore roundly condemns in others. In other words, circling the wagons and urging others to uphold our time honored traditions does not really cut it as practical advice to the business person in the trenches every day. The Board of Directors of the New York Times needs a new strategic business plan – not simply a rehash of last year’s lecture about Edmund Burke!

Notwithstanding Lepore’s attack (and her evident nostalgia for the good old days) and whatever the weaknesses in Christensen’s methodology may be, we remain convinced that the social business movement offers a very helpful and practical path forward for law firms and many other types of businesses that are struggling to contend with the realities of disruption in the business world today. This is not a call to the barricades or an attempt to foment further disruptive change. Rather social business tools and technology provide a method for any business organization to make itself more nimble in responding to the rapid pace of change in the marketplace. We must learn how to adapt to a world of unceasing change or else be prepared to move out of the way!

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