DisruptiveInnovation.Org - Critiques & Responses

Letter to the Editor

by Clayton Christensen, Michael Raynor, Rory McDonald 11/30/2015

To the editor,

The term “disruptive innovation” co-opted an everyday word to a technical application. “Disruption,” in the colloquial sense, means to disturb something that was well-functioning and is now in some degree of disarray, and speaks only to outcomes: if your subway service has been disrupted, your day just got worse, and you have no idea what has caused the interruption. In contrast, the technical term “disruptive innovation” describes a specific process by which an innovation might seek to gain prominence in a mainstream market, with no reference to outcomes: if your industry is being disrupted, you know only that new entrants are coming after you by following a particular path. If we have given the impression that, in separating the colloquial from the technical uses in this way, we are claiming a “monopoly” on a well-formed English word, we apologize; our intent was merely to define the theory.

Seen in this light, the claim that we have gone “too far” by observing that Uber has not followed a disruptive path to its current position risks missing our point. To say a company, like Apple, has achieved some its noteworthy successes without being a disruptive innovator is hardly to “ignore or belittle” the company. It is simply to note that companies can follow a path to success other than a disruptive one. When companies follow a non-disruptive path, disruption theory does not apply, and we need different theories to explain the paths they have taken. Just as we need different theories to explain the origin of species and the spin of quarks, we need different theories to explain the different paths that innovators might follow.

No individual (not even Clay Christensen), has exclusive rights on how to make any theory (even Clay Christensen’s theory) better. That is why we have only ever welcomed efforts to test the limits and the power of disruption theory. The scientific method has well-established rules by which theories are tested, improved, or rejected. We have published broadly our perspective on those rules, and we do our best to follow them. Precise and consistent definitions of key terms, and a common understanding of how to apply them, are a core part of sound theory testing. Without this clarity, the parties to the conversation are at risk of talking past each other, undermining the theory’s conceptual rigor and, eventually, its practical usefulness. In our view, recent criticisms of disruption theory, Schumpeter’s included, have been ill-served by the profligate and sometimes idiosyncratic use of core terminology. After Emerson, we subscribe to the view that it is only a foolish consistency that is to be avoided. There is a lesson here: sometimes it is the hedgehog that trumps the fox.


Clayton Christensen

Michael Raynor

Rory McDonald

Original Article →

To ease discussion we have included the content of the original article here. To review the original, see: Letter to the Editor.