The case against disruptive innovation

As made by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. Lepore is a historian who looks at the evidence behind everyone’s favorite theory these days. What she finds is a very mixed bag: cherry-picked case studies and examples where the longer history doesn’t support the theory. More interestingly, she puts the theory in the larger context of theories of history (progress, historicism, secularization). She writes provocatively:

“Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Even more interesting perhaps is her challenge to the adoption of the theory by organizations and institutions other than industry:

Disruptive innovation as an explanation for how change happens is everywhere. Ideas that come from business schools are exceptionally well marketed. Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification. Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

For a while, I was collecting links to stories that compared the church to companies like Kodak. These stories all drew parallels between failed industries and the church, with dire warnings about the future of the church if we didn’t change. In fact, many of the problems facing institutional Christianity in the twenty-first century are related to our having adopted corporate models of governance and organization in the twentieth century. Blindly to adopt the language and theories of twenty-first century consultants and business leaders is to make the same mistake. Lepore points out that “industries turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.” As far as I know, we are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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