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Answering the Toughest Question About Disruption Theory

2015.07.10   prev     next

HONESTLY, I thought I might not live to hear Horace Dediu asked directly what he thinks of his mentor, Clay Christensen’s long-running position on Apple, Inc. But here it is, on The Eric Jackson Podcast #6 — Jackson asks:

So Clay Christensen. ... there have been some who have criticized him, I think, for making predictions along the way that Apple was just about to fall victim to disruption itself. And, of course, they haven’t, up ’til this point anyway. And so have you — and I believe you’re still close with him and with Harvard — how have you viewed that? And have you been involved in sort-of relaying your views on disruption, and on Apple, to him?

In Dediu’s lengthy response, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t actually say whether or not he’s talked to Christensen about this (as Jackson asked), much less what Christensen might have said in reply. Instead, he attempts to suggest that there are explanations for why Christensen says what he says about Apple, that somehow don’t negate the general validity of Christensen’s work. For me, these explanations raise far more serious questions than they answer. As a background to that, allow me to quote Dediu at length:

I have an enormous amount of respect for [Christensen], and actually I’m working at his institute, which is a non-profit think-tank ... he invited me to join him in doing this research that we’re working on now. And we actually are working on a topic far above Apple; it’s actually on the question of the Capitalist’s Dilemma, which is how do economies allocate, or misallocate, resources at a time of high technological volatility and high financialization as it’s called these days, it’s the idea of, you prioritize finances and financing a­bove product creation. And so we’re looking at a much bigger topic.

But on the question of Apple, here’s what I think, where I’m gonna come to his defense, vigorously, is that when he— he’s often bombarded with questions by reporters and analysts, constantly. You wouldn’t, you couldn’t imagine how much, how many inquiries he gets. And so when everybody mentions Apple, Clay has this metaphor where he’s developed over time a bunch of theories. One of them is disruption. One of them is resources, processes, values. One of them is jobs-to-be-done theory for understanding customers. Another one might be tools of cooperation ... He has this metaphor of these drawers he pulls. And each drawer is a theory, and he just uses that to explain the world. And so he’s got about 16 to 20 theories that are in some degree of completion. So whenever somebody calls him on Apple, he just pulls one drawer. And that drawer is called modularity.

And the modularity drawer is the go-to drawer because that’s what happened in computers. If you look back at the 1990s, the success of Microsoft, and to some degree the failure of the Macintosh, was because things were moving to a more modular approach vs. the integrated approach that IBM, Digital Equipment, and Apple had. And so the modular approach, which is separating hardware from software and then hardware into many other sub-parts, was the successful model for getting the PC to accelerate up to 90% penetration levels. And so his answer is always to go back to that theory as to what happens in computing. In computing, the history is modularity. ...

So what Clay does, is he goes back to this. So he used that theory to talk about the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, or whatever else people ask him. So if they come to him, “what’s gonna happen with the iPhone,” he says, well, this is what happens to computers in general. And so that’s what my theory suggests.

This doesn’t sound like a defense. It is a defense in the sense that there are 16 other drawers. There’s 16 others besides modularity. And so if you pull on any one of those, and then you ask, is Apple consistent with the theory, the answer is overwhelmingly yes, which is what I write about. I write about resources and processes and values, I write about their jobs-to-be-done thinking ... and even in the sense of modularity, it’s much more subtle than simply saying separating hardware from software ... The iPhone isn’t closed, and Android isn’t open, in any strict sense of the word. And nor is the iPhone really integrated vs. everybody else modular. ...

So the theory is actually very consistent with what happened. But because Clay has had a deluge of questions, I mean you can ask him about telephones and you can ask him about movie projectors, and he has to pull a drawer out, and say, this is my go-to— because I haven’t got in-depth knowledge of that industry, I’m going to assume that the way to analyze Boeing’s ... Dreamliner ... is with this analysis. And people who are in the airline industry are like, wait a minute, there’s a lot more going on here. But it doesn’t mean the theory’s wrong, is that you’re asking its author to apply it very broadly, very quickly, and that, I think, is not fair, and not the right way to do it.

Here, as I see it, are the important points that Dediu isn’t addressing:

  • Does Christensen’s modularity drawer really describe what what happened in computers before the 2000s? What if it doesn’t? What if it’s a total myth? (See my article of last November, “The Innovator’s Victory,” for more about that.)

  • What sort of theory has umpteen drawers for its users to choose from, which allow for wildly different predictions of a company’s or product’s likelihood of success? Is that really a theory, or is it just a device by which its practitioners can pretend to be under the guidance of a theory, while “predicting” whatever they like?

  • If the modularity drawer can be pulled by Christensen to predict calamity for Apple, while Dediu re-evaluates that same drawer to explain Apple’s success, then is even each drawer too flexible to count as a theory?

  • Why would the founder and ultimate expert of disruption theory consistently pull the wrong drawer on Apple (and/or incorrectly apply that drawer’s contents), again and again and again, for a dozen years or more? Wouldn’t he realize at some point that he needed to pull a different drawer, or apply that drawer’s contents in a very different way?

  • Is Christensen so “bombarded” and “deluged” with questions that he hasn’t had time to figure out the right drawer/analysis for something as significant as iPhone, in the one hundred months since Jobs first provided the world with a detailed demo of that product? And if he really hasn’t taken the time to find the right analysis, why not just say so when asked, as in, “I haven’t taken the time to analyze this product, so I really have no idea what’s going to happen with that. I’m working on ‘a much bigger topic’ right now.”

Maybe Dediu’s “enormous amount of respect” for Christensen is making him reluctant to confront these questions, for fear of what the answers might be.


Update 2016.01.29 — On Exponent #60, close Christensen colleague James Allworth and co-host Ben Thompson argue that there are cases where disruption theory works, and cases where it doesn’t. But they make no attempt to specify the difference in a way that could be applied to current conditions. Without a very specific, objective definition of what kind of cases are applicable and what kind aren’t, there is no disruption theory. What if I had a business theory, and every time my theory’s predictions came true, I said the theory applies to that case, and every time they didn’t come true, I said my theory didn’t apply to that case? What would a reasonable, intelligent person think of that? Any theory at all can be “verified” in such manner, even if it actually has no predictive powers and/or is extremely wrong.


See also:
The Old-Fashioned Way
Apple Paves the Way For Apple
iPhone 2013 Score Card
Disremembering Microsoft
What Was Christensen Thinking?
Four Analysts
Remember the iPod Killers?
The Innovator’s Victory
Answering the Toughest Question About Disruption Theory
Predictive Value
It’s Not A Criticism, It’s A Fact


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