Is disruption theory wearing new clothes or just naked? Analyzing
recent critiques of disruptive innovation theory
Michael R. Weeks*
Dunham College of Business, Houston Baptist University, 7502 Fondren Road, Houston, TX
(Received 10 September 2014; accepted 8 June 2015)
The disruptive innovation theory of Clayton Christensen was heavily criticized in an
article in The New Yorker magazine by Jill Lepore. Her article evaluated
Christensenâ€™s research methodology and analysis and found both lacking. Leporeâ€™s
criticisms identified several symptoms of problems within the research, but stopped
short of presenting root causes. This article looks at Leporeâ€™s criticisms and
diagnoses three root causes for the symptoms recognized by Lepore: a lack of an
adequately constrained definition of the term disruptive innovation; a failure to
identify and maintain a consistent unit of analysis in the research; and a failure to
account adequately for managerial agency. This article then discusses solutions
to these issues and how scholars might move research into disruptive innovation
Keywords: disruptive innovation; methodology; critique
New clothes or naked?
Itâ€™s the dream of business school academics everywhere. A research project resonates
with the business community so profoundly that key ideas from the project make it into
the mainstream lexicon and business leaders from all over the world seek advice from
the scholar. One of the first instances of this type of success was Harvardâ€™s Michael
Porter (1979, 1980) and his â€œFive Forcesâ€ framework. Almost 20 years later, Clayton
Christensenâ€™s (1997) ideas on disruptive innovation had the same type of resonance.
Of course, mainstream success can lead to mainstream criticism. Recently, this
became the case for Christensen as Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, took to the
pages of The New Yorker to write a withering critique of Christensenâ€™s work. Although
many of the criticisms were not new (e.g. Danneels, 2004; Markides, 2006; Tellis,
2006), Leporeâ€™s (2014) lengthy analysis of disruptive innovation theory received instant
international attention because it was published in The New Yorker, not a sleepy peerreviewed journal. The article and its criticisms were subsequently discussed in The Wall
Street Journal, The Financial Times, Business Week, The New York Times, and Salon
(Bennett, 2014; Hill, 2014; Krugman, 2014; Oremus, 2014; Syre, 2014; WladawskyBerger, 2014). Christensen seemed stunned by the instant negative notoriety, and called
Lepore â€œmisguided and misinformedâ€ (Syre, 2014).
In this â€œhe said/she saidâ€ story from academia, what can we learn? Do Leporeâ€™s
criticisms have merit? If so, is Christensenâ€™s theory still of use to academics and
*Email: [email protected]
Â© 2015 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 4, 417â€“428, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14479338.2015.1061896
practitioners? In the next sections, Iâ€™ll attempt to tease out some of the issues
concerning the influential theory on disruptive innovation and see what can be salvaged
and what should be jettisoned.
A brief history of disruptive innovation
Christensenâ€™s work first gained widespread notoriety with the publication of his book,
The Innovatorâ€™s Dilemma, in 1997. The book showed in a series of case studies how
incumbent firms in an industry seem paralyzed when a lower-cost, lower-performing
innovation enters the market and begins to â€œdisruptâ€ the established industry structure.
The incumbent firms tend to cede the lower margin segments of the industry to the
disrupting firm and move up market to protect the firmsâ€™ higher margin products.
In the early stages of disruption, the lower-performing technology only meets the
needs of a small segment of the existing customer base. As the new technology evolves,
its performance improves and the innovation meets the needs of additional customers in
the industry. Eventually, the original firms are driven out of the industry as the
disruption meets the needs of the mainstream market.
As the incumbent firms cede the lower margin elements of their product offerings,
the firmsâ€™ overall profit margins often increase. This is the core of the innovatorâ€™s
dilemma. The firms are increasing profit margins, even as the disruption is ensuring
ultimate failure of the firm.
Christensen has written a number of follow-up articles and books advancing his
theory (e.g. Christensen, 2006; Christensen & Raynor, 2003a, 2003b; Christensen,
Verlinden, & Westerman, 2002; Wessel & Christensen, 2012). Christensenâ€™s books and
articles present compelling arguments for his theory and have been widely read. Despite
the success of the theory, there have been criticisms along the way (Danneels, 2004;
Markides, 2006; Tellis, 2006).
The difference now is that Leporeâ€™s (2014) criticisms have received broad coverage
in the mainstream and business press. Her critique questions the rigor, analysis, and
integrity of Christensenâ€™s work by pointing out anomalies from the research findings.
Specifically, she criticizes the case method as a research strategy and the conclusions
that Christensen draws from his analysis. The anomalies Lepore identifies are symptoms
of problems in the research. In this article, I will look at three potential root causes of
these symptoms: an overly broad definition of the term â€œdisruptive innovationâ€; a lack
of specificity of the unit of analysis; and a failure to recognize managerial agency.
The academic integrity of Christensenâ€™s work
Some of Leporeâ€™s (2014) most serious criticisms involve the academic integrity of
Christensenâ€™s work. She disparages the case study research method, accuses him of
â€œhand-pickingâ€ cases within specific time frames to develop his framework, and of not
examining evidence that may refute his theory.
Leporeâ€™s criticisms of the case study method are not new to the research literature
(e.g. Cepeda & Martin, 2005; Pedrosa, Naslund, & Jasmand, 2012), but she seems to
lack a fundamental understanding of the nuances of this research strategy. For example,
case selection is one of the most difficult parts of the process and it is not random when
the method is applied properly. Eisenhardt (1989, p. 533) points out that the selection
should be based on â€œtheoretical sampling,â€ and focus on cases that can â€œreplicate or
extend theory,â€ yet still retain theoretical flexibility. Added to these theoretical concerns
418 M.R. Weeks
are practical problems of gaining access to organizations that are willing to contribute to
the research aims. Consequently, what appears to be â€œhand-pickingâ€ is actually a necessary part of the case study methodology. Moreover, to know if Christensen hand-picked
his cases, we would need to know what industries Christensen rejected for his study.
Leporeâ€™s term, hand-picking, makes an assumption that Christensen rejected suitable
industries that would have refuted his analysis, yet she gives no data to support that
Lepore also identifies some issues with the time frame of the case analyses. For
example, she criticizes the use of 1989 as an end point for the analysis of the disk drive
industry. The original work was a part of his 1992 doctoral dissertation; consequently,
the end point of 1989 seems like a practical consideration for the completion of the
Among the â€œhand-pickedâ€ case studies in the selected timeframe, Lepore critiques
Christensenâ€™s (1997) characterization of Seagate Technologies as a failure in his
research. In 1989, Seagateâ€™s lack of success in the 3.5-inch disk drive market may have
been a failure, but it did not lead to the failure of the firm. The firm lost an opportunity
with the smaller disk drives of the time, but it recovered and remains a leader in the
industry today. Here, Leporeâ€™s criticisms have more merit. While the failure classification may have been appropriate in 1992, Christensen failed to adequately illustrate the
rest of the story when he published The Innovatorâ€™s Dilemma in 1997. In later work
Christensen (2006) describes the ongoing process of developing a theory, but still fails
to discuss some of the specific anomalies highlighted by Lepore and others. The
ongoing process he advocates should more clearly address later developments from the
One real problem with Christensenâ€™s work that is not discussed by Lepore is the
selection of publication venues for the research. Christensenâ€™s work has been rarely subjected to the peer reviews that most academics undergo. His most influential work
(Bower & Christensen, 1995; Christensen, 1997; Christensen & Raynor, 2003a; Wessel
& Christensen, 2012) has been published in books and the Harvard Business Review â€“
which are not peer reviewed.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) is certainly one of the most influential publications in the field, but readers sometimes forget that the articles are editorially reviewed.
Moreover, according to the Cabellâ€™s Directory of research publications, approximately a
third to a half of articles in HBR are by invitation. This lack of peer review and high
number of pre-selected articles means that the focus is on impact for practitioners and
readability. Key details about research methodology are not often discussed in-depth.
When Christensen (2006) has responded in peer-reviewed contexts to criticism from the
research community (e.g. Tellis, 2006), he has seemed quite dismissive. Books and editorially-reviewed publications like HBR (and for that matter, Business Horizons) provide
an important context for academic discourse. Nevertheless, a more rigorous peer review
of his methodology and of some of the disruptive innovation concepts may have
allowed Christensen to refine the exposition of his theory more thoroughly through the
Leporeâ€™s criticism of Christensenâ€™s academic process raises some significant issues,
but the tone of her article implies there are problems with Christensenâ€™s integrity. This
doesnâ€™t seem to be the case. Christensenâ€™s work generally follows accepted research
principles; however, he has failed to address substantive concerns that have arisen as
additional data have become available. It is especially troublesome that Lepore made
these veiled allegations without interviewing Christensen. I am surprised that a historian
Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 419
would not seek a primary source when available, and in this case the primary source
was at the same university. Ultimately, Lepore chose sensationalism over serious
Leporeâ€™s criticisms tend to focus on the symptoms of misapplication of the theory,
not the root causes. To provide a more critical analysis, I will try to advance some ideas
about the root causes of the issues Lepore brings to light. The first of those root causes
has to do with the definition of a disruptive innovation.
The definition of disruptive innovation
One might think that a concept as widely-hailed as disruptive innovation would have a
clear definition, but Christensen is surprisingly vague about the boundaries of disruptive
innovation. Christensen (1997, p. xv) defines disruptive technologies as innovations that
â€œresult in worse product performance in the near termâ€. A few sentences later he goes
on to say that these innovations are â€œtypically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently,
more convenient to useâ€ (Christensen, 1997, p. xv). Additionally, disruptive innovations
usually appeal initially to a small subset of users that value a particular performance
dimension. He defines the opposite of disruptive technologies as sustaining innovations.
Sustaining innovations simply â€œfoster improved performanceâ€ and appeal to the current
user community (Christensen, 1997, p. xv). Christensen (2014) attributes much of the
confusion about his work to his choice of the word â€œdisruptiveâ€, but the failure of his
work to establish clear boundaries for the distinction between disruption and sustaining
seems to be the root cause.
Ultimately, the qualifier â€œtypicallyâ€ gives Christensen (and others) wide latitude to
use the concept in almost any context. Almost all new technologies provide inferior performance in some dimension in the early development stage. Which ones qualify as disruptive? If Christensen drew the boundaries a little tighter on the concept, it would be
easier to defend. Christensen is on firmest ground when he confines use of his theory to
lower cost, lower performing innovations that appeal to a new subset of users. When
the application of the theory strays from this narrower definition, missteps occur.
One widely covered misstep was when Christensen predicted that Appleâ€™s iPhone
would fail (Burrows, 2006; McGregor, 2007); consequently, the iPhone product launch
illustrated some of the problems with Christensenâ€™s framework. He originally classified
the iPhone as a sustaining innovation (McGregor, 2007), probably because the iPhone
wasnâ€™t a disruptive innovation in the more tightly constructed definition of the concept
(lower-cost/lower-performing). The iPhone wasnâ€™t cheaper, smaller, etc. It also wasnâ€™t a
product that was â€œgood enoughâ€ for only a subset of users. The problem with
Christensenâ€™s analysis is that the product also wasnâ€™t a sustaining innovation in the long
line of cell phone products; hence, the iPhone didnâ€™t completely fit either classification
(disruptive or sustaining) in the original Christensen framework. The iPhone was a
premium-priced, radical product that appealed to a wide audience and created a new
industry. The iPhone wasnâ€™t a cell phone; it was a smart phone. Before the iPhone, the
nearest product was probably the Blackberry with its efficient e-mail integration.
However, the iPhone added e-mail, music, and other capabilities in addition to a new
user interface. This counter example doesnâ€™t necessarily falsify the theory of disruptive
innovation, but it does illustrate why the concept needs tighter boundaries and a
recognition that some innovations will inevitably not fit comfortably in a two-category
420 M.R. Weeks
Even when the outcome of a particular technology trajectory seems to fit
Christensenâ€™s framework, there are questions about the application of the concepts. For
example, Christensen uses the digital camera as an example of disruptive innovation
(Euchner, 2011). It is true that digital photography disrupted film (in the colloquial
sense), but the technology didnâ€™t follow Christensenâ€™s model in most ways. For example, early digital technology was lower performing in image quality, but it was certainly
not a lower cost alternative to film. Equivalent digital cameras are today still more
expensive than film alternatives, and when one considers the computer hardware and
software equipment needed to process the photos, it is doubtful whether even the per
shot cost is lower for digital versus film for low volume users. Digital technology does
give the ability to distribute photos to many interested parties for essentially zero marginal cost, but it was really the advent of social media that made this possible. The trajectory of the technology was so complex and interdependent that attributing the market
dynamics at the firm or industry level to the â€œtechnologyâ€ or â€œinnovationâ€ of digital
photography misses many key elements.
Another problem also emerges in the application of the theory to this market. The
early users of digital photography were professional photographers; what Christensen
would call the industryâ€™s â€œbest customersâ€. In Christensenâ€™s model, firms fail because
their best customers are invested in the old technology, and consequently, incumbent
firms ignore the emerging technology (Christensen, 1997; Christensen & Raynor,
2003a). That was certainly not the case here. Kodak worked closely with professional
photographers to develop its early digital cameras. Gustavson (2009, p. 341) points out
that â€œuntil the end of the 1990s, Kodak had the professional digital camera market to
itselfâ€. Despite this early lead, Kodak is one of the casualties of the digital photography
revolution. In fact, it appears that advice that Christensen gave Kodak executives to
concentrate on low-end cameras may have added to its woes (Euchner, 2011). The focus
on low-end cameras meant that Kodak did not invest in some key capabilities (high-volume sensor fabrication, high-end optics, etc.) that could have enabled it to compete
more fully in the digital age. Christensen attributes the later problems to a change in
management (Euchner, 2011), but this diagnosis ignores the fact that Kodakâ€™s shift to
low-end cameras left it unable to compete in the broader digital market.
Christensen might argue that he has considered products such as the iPhone and
digital cameras with his distinction of â€œlow-endâ€ disruptions and â€œnew-marketâ€ disruptions (Christensen, 2006; Christensen & Raynor, 2003a). At first glance, this does
appear to address some of the concerns, but if this is truly the case, why did he not
foresee the ultimate success of the iPhone and the failure of Kodak? Moreover, how
does his low-end/new-market distinction fit with his original models of lower cost, product performance trajectories, and the concept of â€œgood enoughâ€ performance? The
iPhone was a product that appealed to a wide variety of consumers, not a small subset
of people satisfied with â€œgood enoughâ€ performance in a particular dimension. The digital camera was a product that initially appealed to specialized professional photographers, not low-end users. These anomalies raise serious issues for broad application of
the theory and bring into question the rigor of the analysis for some examples that
Christensen himself presents.
The unit of analysis
Once we move beyond the difficulty in defining disruptive innovation, a new challenge
awaits. What unit of analysis is the research targeting? There are several choices,
Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 421
including the technology (or innovation), the industry, the firm, or firm leaders. At
various times, Christensenâ€™s work makes statements about each potential unit of
analysis. For example, the subtitle of his first book is â€œwhen new technologies cause
great firms to failâ€ (Christensen, 1997). To make things more confusing, Christensen
also says that disruption is not about the technology but the business model (Prewitt,
2001). Can the theory predict the behavior of industries, firms, business models, leaders,
or the trajectories of technologies?
Lepore (2014) repeatedly points out instances at one level where the theory has been
poor at prediction â€“ firm-level outcomes. For example, she takes issue with
Christensenâ€™s early characterizations of Seagate Technologies as a failure as well as his
descriptions of other firms within the industry. Today Seagate remains one of the largest
disk manufacturers. The firm was able to recover from some of its missteps identified
during the course of the original research.
Lepore also takes issue with Christensenâ€™s description of the history of U.S. Steel
Corporation. Although U.S. Steel has survived the shakeout in its industry, many of
Christensenâ€™s (2009) observations about the steel industry are still largely valid. Most of
the large integrated mills in the U.S. failed and none of them were able to successfully
open a mini-mill. Nevertheless, Leporeâ€™s discussion of the labor strife within the industry provides additional insight into the difficult dynamics of the case study. Leporeâ€™s critique also highlights a problem with the unit of analysis. One cannot be sure if the
innovation (mini-mills), the industry dynamics, or firm-specific issues caused the disruption in the industry. The Christensen theory indicates that the innovation would be the
cause of the disruption in the industry, but the systemic context is much more complex.
In the end, the causal ambiguity extant in the steel industry highlights problems with
the lack of clarity in the unit of analysis for much of the work published on the theory.
The industry and firms all exhibit a certain level of tacitness, specificity, and complexity
(Reed & DeFillippi, 1990). These factors may provide insight into why the theory has
been particularly poor at predicting firm-level outcomes. Students of the theory are left
wondering why U.S. Steel survived, while so many other similar firms failed. This is
especially true since U.S. Steel did not adopt the disruptive innovation. Of course, disruptive innovation isnâ€™t the only framework to have difficulty predicting long-term,
firm-level outcomes. Jim Collinsâ€™ (2001) widely read book, Good to Great, included
Circuit City, Wells Fargo, and FNMA as example firms in his profiles of 11 â€œGreatâ€
firms. Circuit City subsequently failed, and Wells Fargo and FNMA both required
significant government bailouts during the recent financial crisis.
The failure to identify a consistent level of analysis has not helped advance the
prescriptive properties of the theory. The theory has had some success predicting the trajectories of technologies in the marketplace; however, an understanding of factors at
other levels that led to particular outcomes would be helpful. For example, do firms in
an industry have unique supplier relationships, R&D arrangements, or other factors that
may influence outcomes? Are there certain types of managers that are more responsive
to disruptive forces? The research often conflates technologies, industries, and firms,
which makes understanding the generalizable dynamics of disruptive innovation
One of the most intriguing assertions that Christensen makes is that managers are often
behaving rationally when they respond to disruptive innovations by retreating to higher
422 M.R. Weeks
margin markets and avoiding the disruptive technology. In his description of the steel
industry evolution that led to the downfall of many integrated steel manufacturers,
Christensen (2009) concludes his story by saying, â€œNotice I was able to tell the whole
story without using the term â€˜stupid managerâ€™ onceâ€. The implication is that if managers
were able to understand the long-term trajectories of disruptive innovations, they would
Christensenâ€™s (2006) work provides anecdotal evidence that managers can learn to
respond to disruptive forces effectively when he cites two examples, Kodak and
Teradyne. The problem is that these firms ultimately had very different outcomes.
Teradyne succeeded while Kodak failed. Both firms responded in similar ways to the
disruptive threat by setting up autonomous divisions to develop disruptive concepts.
Christensen blames Kodakâ€™s failure with its decision to abandon the autonomous division and focus on operational efficiencies (Euchner, 2011). However, it is questionable whether Kodakâ€™s focus on the low-end of the digital camera market would have
resulted in different outcomes, since this part of the market has been disrupted (in
the narrower sense) by the cell phone category. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, it
is questionable whether digital photography (vis a vis film) fits the disruption framework at all. Is the failure of Kodak due to its failure to respond correctly to disruptive forces, or did digital photography fail to fit Christensenâ€™s framework as either a
sustaining or disruptive innovation? Despite Christensenâ€™s (2006) assertion that his
theory has moved into a normative phase, the student of disruptive innovation is left
wondering whether the framework has any predictive power at the firm level.
Additionally, does the theory have any way to account for the agency of managers
within the firm?
Christensenâ€™s book, The Innovatorâ€™s Solution, gives prescriptions for dealing with
disruptive innovation (Christensen & Raynor, 2003a). The book makes some interesting
proposals for managerial action, and makes some suppositions about what types of managers might thrive in a disruptive environment. For example, the book provides some
data to support the idea that founders are better equipped to deal with disruption than
later â€œprofessionalâ€ managers. Here the reader may have hope for an in-depth examination where the manager is the unit of analysis; however, the data are more anecdotal
than empirical. For example, IBM is on both lists since it introduced disruptive products
with both the founder and a professional manager as CEO. Is the manager or the firm
the unit of analysis? And even when ignoring the unit of analysis question, there are
questions about the rigor of the presentation. Thomas Watson, Jr. is listed as a â€œfoundingâ€ manager of IBM even though he is the son of the true founder. The â€œfoundingâ€
manager of Dayton Hudson is listed as â€œThe Dayton Familyâ€. Mickey Wexler is listed
as the â€œfounderâ€ of The Gap, but I assume the author is referring to Mickey Drexler
who became CEO in the early 1990s and was not the founder of the firm (Loeb, 2014).
The firm was founded in 1969 by Donald and Doris Fischer (Anonymous, 2014).
Additionally, Christensen and Raynor (2003a) annotate some of their selected founders
with the caveat that their designated founder is the person responsible for the primary
success of the firm. This is a tautological mistake in the analysis. The role of founders
in disruptive innovation is an interesting question. However, if Christensen wants to
propose that founders are better equipped than non-founding managers to introduce or
respond to disruptive innovation, his analysis needs much more depth than presented in
The Innovatorâ€™s Solution.
Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 423
Symptoms versus root causes
Leporeâ€™s (2014) critique identifies anomalies in outcomes expected from the disruptive
innovation framework. This paper has tried to identify the root causes of some of the
examples given by Lepore. Most of the problems stem from three issues: an overly
broad definition of disruptive innovation; a lack of clarity about the unit of analysis;
and a failure to address the ambiguities of managerial agency.
After the examples cited here and in Leporeâ€™s work, one may ask whether the theory
of disruptive innovation has been falsified. Do we need to throw it out and start again?
I donâ€™t think so. What these criticisms show is that some of the broad assertions of the
theory have gone too far. For example, additional research about the long-term prospects
of incumbent firms in new markets has disputed the finding that incumbent firms are
likely to fail when confronted with disruptive innovations (Chesbrough, 2003; King &
Tucci, 2002). Furthermore, despite Christensenâ€™s (2014) protests, this is not just a case
of others making broad assumptions about the term â€œdisruptiveâ€. As documented here,
Christensenâ€™s own research has been too loose with the term, its application, and its
Instances in the research where anomalies have arisen have not been addressed sufficiently. Researchers must be rigorous in their theory development efforts, because as
Just because it is our aim to establish theories as well as we can, we must test them as
severely as we can; that is, we must try to find fault with them, we must try to falsify them.
Only if we cannot falsify them in spite of our best efforts can we say that they have stood
up to severe tests. This is the reason why the discovery of instances which confirm a theory
means very little if we have not tried, and failed, to discover refutations. For if we are
uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations,
and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. (Popper, 1957, Kindle Loc. 1951â€“1956)
While published work has not falsified the theory of disruptive innovation completely,
previous research and this article have identified areas where the theory does not fit the
evidence (Danneels, 2004; Lepore, 2014; Tellis, 2006).
Given the above concerns, how do we move forward with the disruptive innovation
framework? The first step would be to tighten the definition of the concept of disruptive
innovation. The disruptive innovation framework has been shown to lack explanatory
power when it strays from its initial boundaries by the iPhone and digital photography
examples discussed in this article. Disruptive innovation should be limited to instances
where the innovation is lower cost, lower performing (on at least one performance
dimension), and appeals to a subset of the existing market or a new market. Danneels
(2004, p. 249) is broader in his definition stating that a disruptive technology is one that
â€œchanges the bases of completion by changing the performance metrics along which
firms competeâ€. There is clearly no wrong and right here, but the burden is on the scholar to clearly delineate the boundaries of the concept under examination. Christensen
has not done that in his previous work. Once the dimensions of disruptive innovation
have been carefully constrained, researchers can more easily test the framework.
424 M.R. Weeks
A tighter definition of a disruptive innovation would also have an impact on
Christensenâ€™s concept of sustaining innovation. In Christensenâ€™s framework anything
new that is not a disruptive innovation is a sustaining innovation. Sustaining innovations
are those that provide incremental improvements to the existing user base. He is not
alone in using a dual-category model of innovation (e.g. Daft, 1978; Damanpour, 1988;
Tushman & Anderson, 1986), but the complexity of the modern organizational and
technological environments makes it difficult to classify all innovations with only two
categories. We have seen at least two examples that strain the framework, and consequently, there seem to be innovations that are neither disruptive nor sustaining. Other
innovations have probably occurred that have characteristics of both the sustaining and
disruptive descriptions. The innovations pushing the boundaries of the framework that
are described here are radical innovations with wide appeal and higher price points
compared to existing products.
The disruptive innovation framework moves the discussion beyond simple models
such as incremental and radical (Damanpour, 1988; Ettlie, Bridges, & Oâ€™Keefe, 1984),
but it does not provide a model for all innovations. The current work does not acknowledge that some innovations fall outside the framework. This is the primary conceit of
the disruptive innovation; it presumes to include all innovations within a dual category
model. Dual category models will only provide a broad outline for further work. The
dynamics of innovation are too complex to conform to only two categories. While I
donâ€™t consider this a fatal flaw of the framework, it does limit its application.
Biases in the research
Once the definition of disruptive innovation has been more tightly constrained, it will
be easier for scholars to examine biases in research on the topic. Two common biases
that seem to be prevalent in this research are survivor bias and pro-innovation bias
(Hannan & Freeman, 1977; Rogers, 1995). In much of the work on disruptive innovation, the disrupter succeeds and the incumbent firms largely fail (Christensen, 1997;
Christensen & Raynor, 2003a). Danneels (2004, p. 250) points out, â€œall of Christensenâ€™s
case studies are of disruptive firms that did succeedâ€. Surely, every disruptive technology and every disruptive firm cannot succeed. Under what conditions are disrupters and
disruptive technologies likely to fail?
One bias that seems to bother Lepore and others is the pro-innovation bias extant in
the work (Krugman, 2014; Lepore, 2014; Oremus, 2014). Rogers (1995, Kindle Loc.
2648â€“2650) defines pro-innovation bias as â€œthe implication â€¦ that an innovation should
be diffused and adopted by all members of a social system, that it should be diffused
more rapidly, and that the innovation should be neither re-invented nor rejectedâ€. An
acknowledgement of the pro-innovation bias in the Christensenâ€™s work could lead other
scholars to examine the broader implications of disruptive technologies and whether
they are good for workers, firms, industries, or society, but this is beyond the aims of
the Christensen framework. Others may take up this challenge, but the fact that
Christensen does not address the wider societal implications of innovation is not a
failing of the research.
Identification of the unit of analysis
Some of the questions proposed in the previous sections about the implications of the
framework will need careful research design to explore properly. This will begin with
Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 425
identification of the unit of analysis. If the unit of analysis is the firm, one might
consider which firms are more likely to be able to introduce disruptive innovations. Do
they come from inside or outside the current industry? Do they have differentiation or
cost-based strategies (Porter, 1979, 1980). Are they large or small firms? Christensen
tackles some of these questions in his research, but the lack of a constant unit of analysis leaves the reader questioning whether the results represent trends or are idiosyncratic
to specific case studies.
If the industry is the unit of analysis, one encounters other possible questions. Are
certain industries more likely to survive disruptive innovations? What characteristics
influence these outcomes: supplier networks; customer networks; rivalry; labor
Finally, we come to the questions of managerial responses to disruptive innovations.
Christensen highlights how managersâ€™ seemingly rational behavior can result in disaster
in disruptive environments (Christensen, 1997; Christensen & Raynor, 2003a). The
theory is now almost 20 years old. What types of managers are likely to see these longterm consequences and react accordingly? Is there any evidence that education or consulting interventions are able to change managerial outlook and response to disruptive
innovations? Some of the work in this area has been particularly sloppy, as shown in
the discussion of foundersâ€™ roles in responding to disruption. The literature needs a
more careful examination of managerial agency in disruptive environments.
Overall, the questions posed by the disruptive innovation framework are interesting
and need a new generation of research to answer. Several authors have called for such a
research agenda, but progress has been slow (Danneels, 2004; Markides, 2006).
Despite the considerable issues raised in this article, I find the disruptive innovation
framework to be a powerful lens for examining certain technological advances. I discuss
it with my students and consulting clients. It enhances understanding of the complex
dynamics associated with innovative products and gives suggestions for how firms
might introduce lower-performing, lower-cost items that are successful in the marketplace. I also think the theory provides a cautionary tale for managers in incumbent
industries when encountering lower-cost, lower-performing products.
Though I teach disruptive innovation theory in my classes on innovation management, I do so with acknowledgement that the framework is not perfect. Healthy
skepticism is always warranted when examining broad claims about innovation. At
times, Leporeâ€™s criticisms go too far, but she does raise important issues about the
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