The case against disruptive innovation

As made by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. Lepore is a historian who looks at the evidence behind everyone’s favorite theory these days. What she finds is a very mixed bag: cherry-picked case studies and examples where the longer history doesn’t support the theory. More interestingly, she puts the theory in the larger context of theories of history (progress, historicism, secularization). She writes provocatively:

“Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Even more interesting perhaps is her challenge to the adoption of the theory by organizations and institutions other than industry:

Disruptive innovation as an explanation for how change happens is everywhere. Ideas that come from business schools are exceptionally well marketed. Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification. Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

For a while, I was collecting links to stories that compared the church to companies like Kodak. These stories all drew parallels between failed industries and the church, with dire warnings about the future of the church if we didn’t change. In fact, many of the problems facing institutional Christianity in the twenty-first century are related to our having adopted corporate models of governance and organization in the twentieth century. Blindly to adopt the language and theories of twenty-first century consultants and business leaders is to make the same mistake. Lepore points out that “industries turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.” As far as I know, we are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jill Lepore and Jane Franklin

Jill Lepore gave a talk tonight at UW on her most recent book, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. It’s largely based on the correspondence between Jane and her famous brother, Benjamin.

Her work juxtaposes the fame of the brother with the obscurity of the sister and raises questions about gender and opportunity. Benjamin was given the opportunity to go to school, but his family’s poverty prevented him from getting a formal education. He was apprenticed to his brother who had a printshop and fled to Philadelphia, where he became famous. Jane married her next door neighbor at age fifteen and lived the typical life of a poor woman of the day. What set her apart was literacy and her famous brother.

Lepore talked mostly about their relationship and Jane’s life, relatively little about the topic implied by the subtitle of her book: Jane Franklin’s opinions. A few things came out at least. Jane was interested in politics and concerned about the plight of the poor. She was also opposed to war and violence. In her last letter to Benjamin before the beginning of the Constitutional Convention, she urged that the men gathered there would “beat swords into plowshares.”

Lepore is a fine historian, a beautiful writer, and an engaging speaker. It was a delightful evening.

a review from The New York Times.