Hating Disruption?

The recent dust up between two Harvard professors has been entertaining, to say the least. On the one side is Clay Christensen. Some time ago Prof. Christensen wrote “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, where he looked at why big and successful companies failed to adapt to disruption. It introduced the idea of disruption into common business speak and is a classic. A short while ago, history Prof. Jill Lepore rather brusquely dismantled his work in a piece for the New Yorker.

One quick observation — much of the advice that you find in business books is over sold. And when it comes from Harvard, few dare to question it. So I agree with Hayden Shaughnessy at Forbes that whether Prof. Lepore is right or wrong, the fact of debate about how to think about disruption is useful. And I think even Clay Christensen agrees with that.

So what is at issue? As Digital Tonto points out, not whether more disruption is happening. It is, and firms need to cope with faster rates of change in the market. So Rita Gunther McGrath is on safe ground when she writes about “The End of Competitive Advantage”. Firms cannot just sit back and milk the cow . They need to think about what’s next. From this perspective, even if Christensen is not totally right, he is right to question why smart guys get it wrong.  The more interesting argument is about how to be successful in this environment. And that is unsettled.

Here is  one change that I think is worth thinking about a lot more. In the old days, substantive knowledge ruled the roost. One learned a business and became an expert in it before expecting to be given a top management position. Al Sloan believed in this at GM. In this way of thinking, one did expect folks to migrate between businesses all that much. These days, we are more in awe of technological prowess. So Tesla Motors is not a car company. It is a technology company that happens to make cars. So what is “technological prowess”? Good question.

It is not just knowing how digital technology works (being able to look inside the box). Steve Jobs, for example, did not do programming and no one ever claimed this held him back from being a tech genius. Technological prowess has more to do with being able to connect with the right expertise to solve the right problem at the right time. One needs the ability to cross over between different skills areas: problem identification, technology fluency, and networking.

This is an interesting mix — and one that they don’t teach in school. Perhaps that is — at the core — why some folks who should be good at this just are not.


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