Christensen Disrupted?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Writing in the Washington Post, Vivek Wadhwa considers the theories of Clayton Christensen, the man who gave us the term, "disruptive innovation," and concludes that they are "outdated:"

... The competition no longer comes from the lower end of a market; it comes from other, completely different, industries. For the taxi industry, Uber came out of nowhere. At first Uber tried competing with high-end limousines. Then it launched UberX to offer cheap taxi service. Now it wants it all. Through UberFresh, it is piloting same-day grocery delivery; through UberEats, it promises lunch in 10 minutes. Uber is challenging supermarkets,, and the catering industry -- all at the same time. With UberHealth, it is planning to bring flu shots to people in need. When Uber finishes writing the software for its self-driving cars, it will create a genuine tsunami of disruption in every industry that depends upon transportation.
Wadhwa also notes that Tesla, unlike other famous examples of disruptive innovation, started out on the high end of its market, rather than the low end. Those are great points, but is anyone really being disproven here or found to be out-of-date? Perhaps ignoring the lower end of the market (many past "victims" of disruptive innovation), leaning on improper government (taxi companies), or failing to spot opportunities in other industries (many automakers) have some conceptual denominator in common, like complacence. In an age where what were once thought of as completely different industries are much more obviously related, there is less and less room for sclerotic companies run by hidebound clock-punchers. The phenomenon of technological advances in one industry leading to improvements in others is not new. (The space program was infamous for this.) What's different is that technological advances are happening much more rapidly. If fortune favors the brave, bravery will arise from thinking very creatively about where the next advance can lead.

Regarding Christensen's theories in this light I would guess that they are (a) not so much wrong as being misapplied or (b) wrong in the sense of being insufficiently general, or (c) some combination of both. I can't really tell because I am not familiar enough with his work.

-- CAV

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