2. Does the theory improve upon (as a complement or substitute for) other answers to the question it addresses? 3. What ideas are at the core of the theory and what is peripheral? Let’s consider the theory of disruptive innovation through the lens of those three questions. 1. What question is the theory meant to address? Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation is animated by an excellent question: How is it that capable, motivated incumbent companies are unseated by startups that tend to have weaker capabilities and fewer resources? This would seem improbable, yet it happens more frequently than one would expect. Why? Regardless of what one thinks of the theory of disruptive innovation’s answer to this question, the question remains a good one. In my view, this is the main weakness of Harvard University historian Jill Lepore’s prominent critique of the theory of disruptive innovation in a 2014
SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU SPRING 2016 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 29 article in The New Yorker . Lepore raised a set of interesting points. A chief weakness of her critique, however, was that she did not ade- quately acknowledge the importance of the question that the theory of disruptive innovation addresses. I suspect this comes in part from the fact that Lepore is an outsider to the business field. She does not have to confront the question of why capable, motivated incumbent companies might be vulnerable. But we (both managers and man- agement scholars who aspire to guide them) do. 2. Does the theory improve upon (as a complement or substi- tute for) other answers to the question it addresses? One of the downsides of the great popularity of the theory of disruptive in- novation is that that popularity has obscured the fact that there are other good answers to the question the theory addresses. In par- ticular, two compelling answers to the question of why incum- bents are vulnerable are “competency traps” (a phrase that was introduced by Barbara Levitt and James G. March in 1988 and that describes the paradoxical fact that it is more difficult for compa- nies that are highly capable in one area or with one approach to develop new capabilities than it is for a new entrant to do so) and internal competition (that a company’s units have difficulty shar- ing common resources such as their brand and sales channels when the units compete for the same business). Christensen and his coauthors are well aware of each of these issues and discuss them as part of their framework. But one does not need the theory of disruptive innovation to appreciate these points of incumbent vulnerability. The question is whether the theory has a distinctive insight to add to complement existing in- sights. Are incumbents vulnerable even when they do not fall prey to competency traps and are not riven by politics? Christensen and colleagues counsel that the answer is “yes.” But how and why is that?
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- MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clayton M. Christensen