Originally Posted on Blog.com June 23, 2014
By MARSHALL BARNES, R&D Eng Copyright June 21, 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Back, when I was a very small child, my mom began to drill into my head one phrase that I have never forgotten. It has kept me out of plenty of trouble and has also come back to haunt my parents as well, when I decided to drop out of college and pursue my dreams. That simple phrase is “Don’t follow the crowd”. That one phrase essentially translates into another – “resist peer pressure” and that was the thing that really got my parents, because if you can resist pressure from your peer group, you can resist pressure from anyone. It is the phrase, along with most of my heroes growing-up, that made me into the fierce individualist I am today, even now with the focus on groups, crowds, peers, openess and partnering. And so it is with this groupthink about disruption and the hype over innovation promotion, which brings me to the recent blow-up with one Jill Lepore and her New Yorker article against the father of disruption theory, Clayton Christensen, both professors at Harvard, where coincidently I’ll be speaking on the 25th of next month.
Disruption theory, just like the idea of innovation itself, has been over hyped, misused and exploited by motivational speakers and morons to the point that it was becoming obvious to those who didn’t even have a discerning mind on the matter. A backlash not only was due but I predicted as much in comments made on blogs at innovationexcellence.com where I have a community membership. As an innovator, inventor, and creativity scientist/master, I have an over 40 year track record studying and doing creativity and innovation that has reached 30 different fields and with 40 different breakthroughs, so I know what I’m talking about in a way that Lepore can’t. Though I agree mostly with her position, in the overall war against the hype of disruption and innovation, attacking Christensen is only a scratch on the surface because the problem extends far beyond him, and he also regrets the misuse of the word, disruption, or so he says. What lies ahead, however, is a war that she can’t win on her own, however, I’ve been preparing for it for a while now and the date that this blog was first launched and its subheading, is proof of that.
The date of my first post here is May 3rd, 2014, more than a month before the publication of her article, and the sub-subtitle of this blog is “”They called for disruption, Now they’re getting it”. The title of the first blog post says it all – “Welcome to the Beginning of the End of Innovation As You’ve Been Sold It“. You can’t be any more specific than that. As someone that’s a member of a number of the top open innovation groups online, I have an intimate knowledge of what is happening in the industry across the board now, not back in history at some point, and it is that knowledge that led me to realize just how much misinformation and outright B.S. is being promulgated as cutting edge business strategy. In the ’80s I learned about how to be cheaper, smarter, faster, leaner, and meaner when it came to being competitive – when it was required. All of those things lead toward more innovation and subsequently better competition, which of course could be described as disruptive but who cares about semantics here? And that’s one of the biggest problems in this whole situation – the overwhelming tendency for the disruption/innovation hype industry to think that but substituting one word for another, that you change the concept. Sorry, boys and girls, but you don’t, as long as you leave the definitions the same.
Above is a video of Clayton in action. He discusses his theory of disruption beginning with the steel industry. The problem with Chrsitensen’s analysis is two fold. One, he describes the scenario with the steel industry and mini-mills as if the mini-mills continued to take over steel altogether and then failed. I checked and found a whole list of U.S. companies making rebar, the bottom rung steel product that should have been the first to go according to him. He assumes that the problem is the way that businesses react to the effect of smaller competition coming in on the bottom, that they will always automatically just release those smaller margin markets to the competition, yet he says they aren’t “stupid”. Maybe that’s the problem – no one’s had the guts or the gumption to tell them how stupid they really are. The last time I checked, if your total profit from overall operations, is $1B and you let go lesser earning portions that are 7% each, and there’s say 4 of them, that’s a loss of 28% of your business. He assumes that they’ll get more of the higher profitable level, maybe so, but my reactions would be to cut costs of the business you already have and make that more profitable. Innovate improvements, what Christensen calls sustaining innovation. All it would take to undue that scenario he describes is if one of those companies decided to fight back against the upstarts, like a certain company did against me one time. But he says they don’t, because it’s not profitable.
Steve Jobs thought more like me (Hey, I’m older and I was doing it first). In a series of emails he declared “Holy war on Google” , something that I will continue in my own way since I hate them with a passion. Their current actions against indie record labels, an industry that I have been connected to half my life, pretty much seals the deal for me. At any rate, all this talk about disruption is really just semantics. Here, let me wave my magic wizard’s wand and show you – substitute “disruption” for “competitiveness”. See? It’s like it was, back in the ’80s. What doesn’t change are the tactics. When faced with threatening competition (instead of disruption), that’s what you do – you go to war, like Jobs said. You get more competitive. You know what I’m saying and I didn’t even use the word, disruption. It’s the story that got me selected by Julie Anixter, of Innovation Exellence, to be one of 25 featured innovators at the IX Innovation Cities Tour in Boston. Innovation Excellence, who by the way, is connected to Christensen’s Disruptor Foundation. My story of “From The Rebellion VS The Empire to Alexander the Great” (which you can see here ) focused on using creativity as a competitive weapon in the ’80s in a battle with a local video production studio and now again, to beat the competition in the advanced concept physics/aerospace arena on an international level. It’s showing both to illustrate how disruption actually works, but not by focusing on Christensen’s theory (it didn’t even exist in the ’80s) but from the use of military strategy and tactics. In the ’80s we were inspired by The Return of the Jedi as we had to face off against that new production firm, with their massively outfitted studio, that wanted to dominate the entire local video production market on all levels. We saw them as the Empire, with their studio Death Star and we were the Rebellion and we were going to fight back, and we did and we won in a two year conflict which left the studio management split apart and in the end (not by our doing) the loss of the studio itself.
We were the disruption that they brought on themselves by trying to dominate areas of the market that traditionally they should have left alone. Oh, but how did we little 20 somethings ever manage it without the professorial guidance of Clayton Christensen? We used the creativity that all underdog rebels, insurgents, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries do. Was it disruptive? Yeah, but not because of some magical theory. Hell, it’s just common sense! We also stood by and watched as Cranston/Csuri Productions, the first computer animation production house in the world, fell by the same forces (not ours) that Christensen describes – they were under cut by the advent of cheaper computers, software programs and the simple fact that there is break point where, if a cheaper product exists that will get the job done, that’s where the customers go. Charles Csuri was so fixated on doing the best quality computer animation possible that he chose to completely ignore the threat from the little guys until it was too late. In that respect, Christensen’s theory came true, but it didn’t have to.
I want to make something perfectly clear here, as well. In the greater scheme of things, we were on CCP’s side. We didn’t want them to go out of business and for the record, the staff there was always nice to us and helpful. But I didn’t run the shop, Chuck Csuri did, and although I was working on alternatives to some of the things that they did, they weren’t computer animations and they weren’t to compete with CCP but solve issues for ourselves and clients that couldn’t afford to pay $2,000 to $5,000 per finished second to get things done. If CCP had started a discount division, they could have stayed in business, but there were only so many high end clients in the world and when equipment costs started to drop, and digital video effects became better without computer system requirements, the high end clients bought their own systems. The scenario played out the way Christensen likes to call it, but the point is that it didn’t have to go that way. The production studio should have left us alone, according to Christensen and I agree, but they didn’t and so we had to take them on in a two year war. So, the disruption theory doesn’t always play out and many times it is a tactic instead of a business plan.
Jill Lepore accuses Christensen of many things, including overlooking facts that don’t suit his theory, and there certainly are some. I’m not here to repeat her accusations though, I don’t have to. But one thing I did notice from the lecture video that I’ve included here, is that disruption the way he describes it is not often the way people promote it. Lepore has caught on to this herself where she writes, “Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.”
Yeah, all this hype and there’s not one gun put to anyone’s head with the caveat that they had better follow this formula or else. All it takes, in every case, in every industry is for someone to have the brains and the balls to say,”Nope. We’re not playing it this way. We’re actually going to do real innovation and create a new path.” But venture capitalists like Josh Linker, as she points out, only have one strategy, driven by disruption – make money with a company and sell, exactly the kind of VCs I’ve been known to laugh in their faces and get up and walk out of their meeting. Small minded, clueless and stuck in playing the game of investing in a company, having it get profitable and then selling, with no appreciation that you might do that with some stupid start-up that’s just selling a bunch of apps, but you don’t with one developing world changing technology in aerospace that’s offering to buy you out at a 1,000% ROI within two years. But the VCs and the innovation experts and all the rest just continue, lock step in their mindless march toward disruption, totally unaware, as Christensen was, that someone can disrupt the disruption and the disruptors, too.
Innovation commentator Greg Satell cites a landmark study done by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s that showed people have a tendency to conform to crowd pressure even when the idea in question is obviously and patently wrong. Like I said earlier, not me. But because of this, we have seen the viral explosion of the hype of disruption theory on perhaps an unprecedented scale and this is where Lepore and I are in strong agreement. The only problem is that, although she may have sounded the clarion call, she’s in no position to fight the war beyond her little skirmish with Christensen. If things are going to change, it’s going to take a war and it’s going to take exposing bad actors, and bad advice on a regular basis, and certain people are going to get pissed off while others are already cheering what’s happened so far with Lepore, and are beginning to do the same for me. But Lepore is a historian and not in the innovation industry – I am. And she doesn’t have a 40 year track record in innovation, I do. So that means in this war, that needs to be fought to save business from itself and the disruption/innovation hype cult, she will have little to offer because when that cult fires back with “what the hell do you know about innovation anyway?” she won’t be able to point at the same kind of track record I have and the accomplishments I have and say, “more than you could ever fit into that tiny little pea brain of yours” and then prove exactly why it’s that way. If you doubt me, look at some of the other blog posts here already – and I have twelve more waiting to be released and dozens to write after that.
Those milking the disruption theory and innovation hype for all it’s worth, remind me of the yellow jackets that I used to have to contend with as a child. In late August, after the pears from our pear tree had been dropping a while, the ones that were damaged had been left to rot on the ground to become compost during the winter. Well, that’s also the season for yellow jackets to get crazy and frisky, looking for all kinds of liquids, especially sweet ones. My job was to go out back and get up the rotting pears and dump them. The only problem was I was surrounded by yellow jackets buzzing around getting drunk on pear juice. If I wasn’t careful, the yellow jackets would see me and try to sting, thinking I was a threat, and I was. And just like those hyping disruption theory think of it as their great money bonanza, the yellow jackets thought the pears were the best thing in the world, until I would pick-up individual pears by the stem, that they weren’t slurping from, and throw them down on top of the yellow jackets on other pears, with a crushing blow, essentially turning their treasured past time into the weapon of their demise. The same thing’s going happen to the innovation hypers.
Remember this blog’s subtitle?