What’s left to disrupt?

Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker, “The Disruption Machine” is already creating a stir. I shall not try to summarise what is an excellent and provocative essay, but rather urge you to read it and also to read some of the interesting reactions to it, such as those by Will Oremus in Slate, Andrew Leonard in Salon, Timothy Lee at Vox and Kevin Roose in New York magazine. One of Lepore’s starting points is the current ubiquity of the ‘disruptive innovation’ paradigm, citing and critiquing Christensen’s work: “Ever since ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars.”  Has the term being empted of all meaning? Lepore doesn’t go quite that far, but does argue that “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more that that. It doesn’t explain change.” Timothy Lee, in response to Lepore, accepts that the concept is overused and sometimes misused – but it retains merit and explanatory power: “Disruption is a dumb buzzword. It’s also an important concept.”

We have been here before. Thomas Kuhn’s book, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had an enormous impact on how we think about science and social change, and introduced the important term ‘paradigm shift’. Sometimes ideas can perhaps be too impactful: for Kuhn, a paradigm shift was a rare, epoch-changing event, but the term in the 1980s had become a buzzword. Suddenly, there were paradigm shifts everywhere one looked. (See John Naughton’s article here for a good analysis of the importance of Kuhn’s book).

I think the more general issue that lies behind this and similar debates is how much any theory of change can actually be a practical guide to action, whether that action is by firms and corporations in terms of business strategy, or by government agencies in the form of policies and programmes. When I was an academic, I puzzled over this as a point of theory; now as a policy leader and bureaucrat, I continue to puzzle over it as a practical concern. For example, we know quite a lot know about why economic clustering is important for growth and – yes – innovation, and we even know something about how and why clusters grow (or don’t grow). But it’s a long step to move from that analysis and understanding to a ‘cluster strategy’ or ‘innovation policy’. We can perhaps define some general characteristics of what government – at both national and city level – can do to create the general conditions supporting innovation, creativity and growth, and we can certainly make a (fairly long) list of things not to do. But I think we need to be cautious in going further, and I get distinctly nervous when I see innovation turned into a government programme, with milestones, deliverables, bar charts and the rest of the bureaucrat’s tool-kit ( a tool-kit which I believe is essential for other types of government activity, let me make clear). I have much less experience with business strategy in the private sector, but I suspect that the situation is similar, as convergent evolution means that large organisations, whether public or private, end up resembling each other more than either of them resembles anything else.

There is clearly something in the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’. It has strong links back of course, to Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’, and shares with Schumpeter the emphasis on the importance of entrepreneurship and the vital role of innovation (products, marketing, business practice). For Schumpeter, change in capitalist economies was ceaseless, oligopolies and imperfect competition were the rule not the exception, and capitalism was characterised by instability, cycles and crises, not equilibrium – indeed it was this very instability that generated economic growth, although Schumpeter was gloomy about the long-run survival of capitalism as a system, for social rather than economic reasons.

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