Debating Disruptive Innovation

“How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” was the question raised by an article in the fall 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. In this issue, several more experts weigh in on the topic.

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Few MIT Sloan Management Review articles garner as much attention as Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh’s article “How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” in the fall 2015 issue. After interviewing and surveying 79 industry experts, King and Baatartogtokh concluded that many of the 77 industry cases cited as examples of disruptive innovation by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and his coauthor Michael E. Raynor did not actually fit four of the theory’s key elements well.

King and Baatartogtokh’s article attracted the attention of a number of media outlets — and generated a number of interesting responses. In the essays here, two authors — Juan Pablo Vázquez Sampere of IE Business School and Martin J. Bienenstock of the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP — take issue with King and Baatartogtokh’s conclusions. A third author, Ezra W. Zuckerman of the MIT Sloan School of Management, explores an intriguing question: What if the most important aspects of the theory of disruptive innovation are something different from what its proponents — and its detractors — emphasize? Finally, in an article on page 83, Joshua S. Gans of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management discusses King and Baatartogtokh’s findings in the context of his own research on disruption.

Missing the Mark on Disruptive Innovation

By Juan Pablo Vázquez Sampere

Every time I hear about a new study on disruptive innovation, I feel excited about the possibility that someone will come up with a way to explain the theory in a much clearer and more transparent manner. More often than not, I end up disappointed — as I was by Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh’s article, “How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” in the fall 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

For starters, King and Baatartogtokh argued that Clayton M. Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation has not been adequately tested in the academic literature. I would encourage the authors to revisit the literature, because to my count, there are more than 40 articles, including much of an entire issue in a leading academic journal (the Journal of Product Innovation Management in January 2006), that test and challenge disruption in many different ways. Furthermore, disruptive innovation is composed of more than four elements, yet the authors chose to test only four.

What’s more, the authors surveyed only 79 experts to evaluate 77 industries.


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Comments (3)
Alfonso Siri
I've never been a fan of management books. However, back in year 2000 I was bored in an intercontinental flight so I turned to a copy of "The Innovator's Dilemma" that I've grabbed from my business school. It was like a revelation. An indeed, a very useful framework to craft strategy in the following years. 
I found the critiques rather puzzling, since I've seen the process being repeated over and over. For instance, at the end of the 90's, being a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, I remember a group of students  analysing a copper sanitary pipes company, Guillermo Decker S.A.. In  their analysis it was clear that the company, very successful at that moment, was completely blind to the irruption of plastic sanitary pipes, defining its market as "copper sanitary pipes".  No need to tell that Decker lost most of its market share to plastic pipes.
And in my current experience, working for a cloud IT company, I see disruptive innovation everyday.
I have my doubts about  considering "inferior" the products that challenge incumbents. Very often, they seem to respond to different needs that the mainstream products are not satisfying. In a way, they redefine the market.  Managers often feel comfortable with a market definition on which declare themselves leaders, or calculating their KPIs. But market boundaries are just conventions, a different perspective can radically change them.  A lot has been said about "blurry" boundaries between markets, convergence, and so on. 
Professor Zuckerman’s statement about "bridging chasms" should be seen as the answer to understand that challenges are not coming from lower or higher quality products, they come from markets we are blind about.
Martin Bienenstock
I could not agree more with Professor Zuckerman's premise that to assess a theory, one must first identify the question the theory is supposed to address and then differentiate between the theory's core ideas and peripheral ideas.  In my view, Professors King and Baatartogtokh failed to do that, and instead plucked four concepts out of Professor Christensen's extensive writings, and erroneously decided his theory could be assessed by determining what percentage of 77 examples of disruptive innovations were impacted by all four concepts.  That percentage is meaningless.  Professor Christensen did not undertake to explain every reason a successful business declines.  He has not theorized that industry leaders cannot be attacked by superior products.  Rather, his groundbreaking research provided an objective test to identify which products that start out inferior are likely to end up seizing an industry leader's market share.  That test is equally invaluable to alert industry leaders to competitive threats they would otherwise ignore and to help other companies formulate products constituting disruptive innovations that will seize market share from others.   I am grateful that MITSloan Management Review published my article, albeit a very shrunken version of what I wrote.  Anyone interested in my full analysis of the King and Baatartogtokh article, can obtain it by emailing me at
Theodore Piepenbrock
Clay's "Theory of Disruptive Innovation" is a landmark in building management theory from case study research, and it is positive therefore to see MIT SMR encourage serious analysis and debate of such an important body of work.  

One subtle but important point that is often overlooked in such discussions on Clay's work is the dynamic and evolutionary nature of his theory.  While many of the initial constructs and propositions in the earliest expositions of the "Theory of Disruptive Innovation" appear fixed, the underlying causal mechanisms have evolved and matured over the past 20 years.  A richer understanding of the theory emerges when one undertakes a longitudinal analysis of a management theory that itself seeks to explain complex longitudinal phenomena.

Finally, Clay's intellectual integrity and relentless focus on the research process, is another under-explored aspect of an important theory which at times has been over-exploited by its proponents.  The process and content of Clay's landmark research programme has served as the intellectual basis which inspired other serious academic efforts to build relevant and rigorous management theories, like the MIT-Oxford-LSE-based "Theory of the Evolution of Business Ecosystems" (