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The Misplaced Argument in the Current “Failings” of Christensen’s “Innovators Dilemma”

by Andrew White  |  June 25, 2014  |  4 Comments

In 1997 I read with great interest Clayton Christensen’s’ “Innovators Dilemma”.  It is a great book that adequately describes the constant stresses an organization has to undergo spanning established products and services meeting current market needs, and the need for innovations to meet the subsequent market needs. I have seen the same stresses in every firm I have worked; and I see the stresses every day when I talk with hundreds of organizations around the globe.  The concept makes perfect sense and has been a popular management book.

Recently another Harvard professor has taken a slight at the book.  In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore looks (See The Disruption Machine) at some of the so called disrupting firms praised by Christensen, as well as those that had failed to disrupt.  It turns out that at times, those that disrupted have themselves failed; and some of those that failed to change have gone on to survive.  Really?  That should be obvious!

After having read a plethora of management books spanning most of Port, Tom Peters, and Hammer, along with a much larger set of modern publications, I discovered a long time ago that there is no one single management or leadership style or strategy that would work everywhere, and every time.  In fact, about the only think I learned is that you need an arsenal of ideas in your leadership bag, and you need to pick the right one for the right time. And that tool selection may need to change, mid-flight.  Every new book might just add to your bag – not replace it.  To be frank, I thought Blue Ocean Strategy was a silly book since it started the obvious and seemed to repeat what was obvious with new names.  And I was not a fan of Christensen’s follow up book, the Innovators solution.  It seemed to be 75% of the original with updated examples of what works.   And I really liked books like:

–       The Ultimate Game of Strategy, Peter Small,, 2001

–       Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, A.G. Lafley and Roger L Martin, HBR, 2013

–       Dealing with Darwin, Geoffrey Moore, Portfolio, 2005

–       Product Strategies for High-Technology Companies, Michael McGrath, McGraw Hill, 1995

–       The Power of Product Platforms, Marc Meyer and Alvin Lehnerd, Free Press, 1997

–       Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, James Utterback, HBS, 1996

–       The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, Harper Business, 1997

I have read all these books multiple times and they are grossly ear marked and noted on.

To suggest that the Innovators Dilemma is wrong is itself a fallacy.  It is not wrong.  It is just a very good idea that makes sense that can be leveraged.  To nod politely to a work colleague of mine, the real silver bullet is to be options based.  Only take a decision when you have too, not before.  Keep as many options open as possible. If you see an opportunity you think you can win with, go for it- and fast. Sometimes a large firm, driven of analytics that maximize established margins can successfully innovate with a new product.  In most cases this is not the case.  So there you have it.  Let’s move on.

Oh, and since I am a believer in the free market, I know and expect new books every month that herald a new winning management practice.  I will buy them, as you will, and I will add them to my box of tricks – assuming they offer something of value.  Good stuff.

Here the FT posted a comment very much in line with my perspective here: Attack on Clayton Christensen’s theory falls wide of the mark.

Category: book-review  innovation  innovators-dilemma  

Andrew White
Research VP
8 years at Gartner
22 years IT industry

Andrew White is a Distinguished Analyst and VP. His roles include Chief of Research and Content Lead for Data and Analytics. His main research focus is data and analytics strategy, platforms, and governance. Read Full Bio

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