Lepore/Christensen revisited.

Here at the end of the summer, I wanted to revisit something from the beginning of the summer: the great Jill Lepore/Clayton Christensen smackdown of June 2014.  Why? Well, I’m beginning a new project that requires me to read the book that George Siemens says “will infect your pets. Erode the foundation of your house. And cause you to walk in unrighteousness,” so I wanted to go back and look again at how Jill Lepore handled such a difficult task first. With time, it’s also possible to survey other reactions to the controversy besides mine.

If you don’t remember, the core of Lepore’s now-classic New Yorker article, entitled “The Disruption Machine,” was a close reading of Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Lepore tested Christensen’s now-legendary thesis by examining the situations in many of the industries that Christensen examined, and found it wanting.

Reviewing his case study of the disk drive industry, Lepore notes that company Christensen profiles in The Innovator’s Dilemma began to thrive right after the arbitrary cut off point he chose for the book. Lepore accuses Christensen of ignoring factors that don’t support his theory, which would explain how he could conclude that the steel industry was somehow disrupted despite the fact that its largest firm has been U.S. Steel for more than one hundred years. As if to rub it in, Lepore impolitely notes that the investment fund that Christensen started to profit from his ideas lost 64% of its value and closed within a year.

In the wake of Lepore’s article, business publications quickly came to Christensen’s defense. Rather than addressing her arguments directly, a columnist at Forbes questions her interpretation of Christensen’s lessons and goes on to note that Lepore shows “a clear disdain for the innovator.” A Financial Times op-ed entitled “Attack on Clayton Christensen’s theory falls wide of the mark” never explains what she actually got wrong. A columnist at Bloomberg View called Lepore’s attack on Christensen’s book “incompetent.” The legendary fact checkers at the New Yorker probably disagree.

Reading these assessments, it feels like the 1990s all over again. In much the same way that business pundits told the world then that the new economy would make old constraints on stock process irrelevant, Silicon Valley and its backers have developed a new, quasi-religious faith that there is money to be made by disrupting established industries. To have these views questioned seemingly out of the blue by a mere history professor clearly struck a nerve. Not prepared to engage in a debate over evidence, the business press fell back on assertions to defend the faith-based investment strategy of the day.

At least that was better than blatant male chauvinism. The most obvious example of this kind of response to Lepore’s article came in a phone interview with Christensen himself published in Business Week. Throughout the exchange, which can best be described as a prolonged primal scream, Christensen addresses Lepore directly as “Jill.” At the very end of the published interview, the reporter asks:

“You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?

I’ve never met her in my life.”

Imagine for a moment that Jill Lepore was actually named “Jim.” Would Christensen have addressed a man he didn’t know who he considered his intellectual equal this way?

No matter how deep the gender divide at Harvard has become, the gender divide in Silicon Valley is almost certainly greater. For that reason, a series of tweets (preserved in the Twitter picture below) by the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen about Lepore demand to be read the same way:


The fact that Andreessen deleted the tweets shows that he understood the problem they exacerbated for his industry and himself, if only after the fact.

Just a few months after Lepore’s story first appeared, it is impossible to tell whether Christensen’s reputation will suffer permanent damage. While Lepore has revealed Christensen’s seminal work to be both poorly researched and badly conceived, the business press and its friends in Silicon Valley have always believed what they want to believe. But this was a much-talked-about story in a very popular magazine that received far more press than the same magazine’s very positive 2012 profile of the same person did. What could be different this time then is that the general public may think twice now when the people touting Christensen’s theories tell them that a little disruption is good for almost everybody.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Historiann

    I was completely with you & enjoying your feminist analysis of Christiansen’s & the tech press dudebros’s rhetorical dismissal of Lepore up until you called his book “seminal.” That kind of ruined it for me!

    (Unless you were using the word to be prankishly ironic?)

    I think poet Anne Bradstreet had their numbers back in the seventeenth century, when she wrote “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ Who says my hand a needle better fits./ A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong/ For such despite they cast on female wits;/ If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,/ They’ll say it’s stolen, or else, it was by chance.”

    1. Jonathan Rees

      That’s what happens when I try to do feminist analysis.

      There’s a section in my new book called “The Refrigerator as Gendered Object.” I guess I’ll have to go back and check my language there too.

      1. Historiann

        It’s easy: just ixnay the word “seminal!” (Why would you want to use that word w/r/t refrigeration, anyway, unless you’re writing about artificial insemination, or assisted reproductive technologies? Otherwise, bleah!)

  2. Michael Raynor

    Much of the commentary on Lepore’s criticisms did not have the luxury of the space required to engage the substance of her arguments.

    Unencumbered by such restrictions, I took on the task of a point-by-point assessment of the factual and conceptual merits of Lepore’s article. You can find it here: http://dupress.com/articles/disruptive-innovation-theory-lepore-response/

    Perhaps the most significant of Lepore’s mistakes was misunderstanding the nature of the phenomenon that the disruption explains. It is a not a theory of the destruction of an incumbent by an upstart. It is a description of the causal mechanisms that allow an under-resourced entrant to enter successfully a market dominated by a well-resourced and well-managed incumbent.

    In addition, it is important to note that disruption theory remains probabilistic in its predictions: business scholarship is a discipline that looks more like medicine in the early 1900s than it does physics in the 2000s. Consequently, we know what tends to happen under sets of general circumstances, not what definitely will happen under precisely defined circumstances. Our conclusions, then, rest upon a preponderance of the evidence, and counter-examples are anomalies worth investigating, not reasons to abandon an otherwise well-established and useful theory.

    Disclosure: I was co-author with Christensen on “The Innovator’s Solution”.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      Thank you for this. I promise to read the linked article.

      In the interim, I just want to note that your analysis of the predictive power of business scholarship is a little like telling somebody the side effects of a drug after they have already taken it. People’s lives and livelihoods are already being determined by the possible predictive power of a theory that may turn out to have very little predictive power at all. More importantly, Clayton Christensen makes out very well whether that theory predicts anything or not.

      Just once, I’d like to see these kinds of cautions in a disruptive innovation puff piece. The fact that you’re doing that here is the great service of Jill Lepore’s article.

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