I don’t know about you, but when we call it “disruption,“ I’ve had my fill, thank you. My generation thought color TV was an amazing innovation, mainly because we could watch Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday night over our TV dinners (another amazing “disruptive” innovation, but we didn’t call it that at the time). Speaking only for people my age, over the last five or six decades we’ve had to adjust to too many disruptive changes and have had to learn too many complicated new interfaces and business models over and over – we are weary! We can barely handle yet another effin’ “paradigm shift!” And some people in our parents’ generation are sometimes beyond weary, often simply giving up and refusing to acknowledge even the internet. Of course that doesn’t mean we’re miserable with all this new stuff, especially when we can Skype with the grandkids whenever we want. Call that innovation “connection” and I’ll take all I can get. New paradigm? I’m chill dude, download the app! I suspect even younger generations also become weary of change that’s too rapid and resist it on some deep level. And disruption is a very bad word when it comes to ISIS, increasing inequality, and global environmental degradation – things that technology both exacerbates and remediates. We need a theory that most of us can relate to – one that guides us in how to build and grow sustainably, without trashing the planet. We no longer need a theory that set out to describe how big companies fail and became misinterpreted to justify techno-narcissism, ruthlessness, greed, and the unprecedented rapid concentration of wealth and power in a few very large global corporations.
I’m an avid reader of New Yorker and have also greatly enjoyed Harvard Business Review when I’ve availed myself of the rather expensive publication, usually from an airport newsstand- there’s just something about flying for business that makes me want to read business publications. So it was with some surprise that I encountered Jill Lepore’s devastating takedown of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory in New Yorker in June of 2014: The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong. Lapore is one of my favorite writers, I hold her in high esteem as a historian. She took a lot of flack for crossing invisible but definitive academic boundaries of “collegiality” by attacking someone in another field, but it’s evident in her critique that she (correctly in my opinion) sees the theory as insufficiently grounded in historical example and in some ways kind of an attack on an historical approach itself. I’ve also spent plenty of time in Silicon Valley environments where disruption theory was gospel and clearly (among the usual things like colossal ego, techno-narcissism, and general corporate cluelessness) regularly contributed to very bad decisions, not to mention the vaporizing of untold sums of both real and Monopoly money.
At the time, the attack generated a lot of buzz, as it questioned the conventional wisdom of a “disruption” theory that never seems to have entertained much real questioning, like, say, the idea of climate change for instance. It’s a complex topic and deserves far more careful and extensive analysis than I’m able or willing to provide. But what should be a productive debate can also devolve into an irrelevant academic battle, so I have held back on commenting until I had reviewed as much of the debate as I thought I should. Fortunately I have no academic territory to defend viciously, and can make what I think to be a helpful contribution because I’ve realized there’s another approach we can use to replace disruption. In my cheekiness I will call it Connective Innovation. I’m not yet attempting quite a rigorous theory per se, and expect to get some blowback about that. And in the spirit of its own construct, it’s not really mine either: “Combinatorial Innovation” and “Combinatorial Creativity” are ideas that have been around for some time. I just thought the word “combinatorial” had too many syllables, and that there’s more value to connecting than to simply combining. Besides I’m a marketing guy.
If you’re unfamiliar with the theory as articulated by Christensen, it’s what Lepore calls a “retrofit” of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction” and basically says that products or services take root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly move up market, eventually displacing established competitors. It originally came about as a way to explain the failure of businesses, which in itself is a fascinating and very useful line of inquiry: failure analysis. To me though, and to Lepore, it falls far short of explaining why and how businesses and innovations actually succeed, and unlike her, I can offer something that might look like an alternate explanation. I will spare the blow-by-blow arguments about the theory and refer you to one flustered and not very compelling rebuttal by Christensen and other articulate commentaries about the debate here and here.
A persistent problem with the theory is how it’s been applied and distorted as a meme. Lepore rightly points out that one uptake on disruption – the “embrace failure” meme – has contributed to pervasive narcissism in a kind of get-rich-quick startup mentality, where burning through lots of other people’s money by failing in a string of startups has become a badge of honor in certain circles. Applying “disruption” as it’s frequently understood – just like blindly applying an idealistic, bogus “free market” approach – to things that really shouldn’t be disrupted or “free-market” in the first place, like education and government, is not always productive and often ruinous. This of course is not Christensen’s fault, nor does it mean his over two decades of careful research have not yielded important contributions to a theoretical approach to economic and business problems, strategy, and organization, but it doesn’t help his case. Freud has been widely discredited for generations but still made important contributions.
Another little thing that’s pretty hard to ignore is that he claimed back in 2007 that the iPhone wouldn’t succeed because it wasn’t sufficiently “disruptive” to fit the theory. He’s also recently claimed that Uber also is not truly disruptive: I’m not buying that for a minute, sorry. Most humans think of these two amazing emergences (what do we call them really?) as the ultimate in “disruption,” for better and for worse, because they’ve basically turned our world upside down – like so many other things, some technology, some social responses to or surprising uses of technology. Maybe Christensen just has a branding problem and should call his theory something else, like Reincarnation Theory. But there’s a serious disconnect between the theory and how most of us experience the world. Missing the boat on things like iPhone and Uber pretty much discredits the utility of this theory for me, and a heck of a lot of other people too, right?
To be fair, I will tease out a few things that I think Christensen does get right or that I find useful. For starters, the observation that when many big companies make decisions that turn out to be very bad in retrospect they were entirely rational, good decisions at the time, based on the only available information. Those at the helm of mighty industries are still fallible humans and likely to commit the same kinds of errors in reasoning that all of us are, it’s just a matter of scale. Daniel Kahneman and others have detailed these reasons in the very useful constructs of behavioral economics: framing, anchoring, the endowment effect, What You See Is All There Is, and several others. I think that Christensen’s differentiation between incremental innovations and truly transformative ones can be useful in the context of things like global climate policy and energy efficiency where we really need big changes quickly, not business as usual until it’s too late. And I like the general idea of studying business in an academic environment and developing theories that help us to manage large complex enterprises better. But the record is mixed on these efforts because so much depends on behavioral theories that are new and often largely untested.
When reading HBR and other similar journals, I do see an effort to solve HR and management issues with a keen sense of social values and a humanistic approach, but (and this may be read as a harsh assessment) as for academic research in business in the U.S. at least, I sometimes wonder whether it’s perpetually doomed to expectations of simply producing theories and algorithms that allow funding organizations and their leaders to get rich on predicting the stock market. Disruption theory as a franchise could be seen this way perhaps. To be fair, we’re nowhere near being able to understand the complex behavior of organizations as well as we need to, and economics is still routinely called the “dismal science” for good reason. On the other hand, for me, behavioral economics does show signs of being far more useful as a theoretical framework.
Connective Innovation theory supplies a better framework for understanding what’s happening to us today and for making better decisions. As I define this theory, it says that true transformative innovation happens when technologies (and what I’ll call for now “social movements”) combine and connect in surprising and organic ways. This isn’t anything really new at all. It’s been demonstrated brilliantly by James Burke in his TV Series “Connections” and book of the same name. Futurists Frank Diana and Gerd Leonhardt also have a lot of interesting things to say about it.
According to Ms. Lepore, for a theory to have utility and some predictive power is needs to meet these conditions: “[it] must serve both as a chronicle of the past and as a model for the future; the strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it; and historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof.“ Let’s examine it in light of these conditions.
Regarding “predictive power,“ I have a problem with the word “prediction” in the first place, preferring “forecasting” or something less certain, only because what’s most useful is a set of plausible futures, not a single one we’re likely to mistake for the certainty. But we should be able to correlate the plausibility of a proposed limited set of outcomes with whatever actually comes to pass, thereby testing the validity of our process – this seems logical. As a chronicle of the past, there is massive evidence over the history of innovation arising as a connection between two or more separate technologies or social movements. My reading of history on this account includes James Burke’s work and many histories of technology too numerous to mention, but the pattern is very clear here. As a model for the future, I believe we need to study the past for evidence because, as Robert Wright says “there’s nowhere else to look.” What’s happening today with the explosion of IoT technology is exhibiting many of the same patterns ( even with the same exact companies, like General Electric) that electrification followed at the turn of the 20th century and the decades immediately afterwards – the similarities are particularly useful as patterns of plausible development. As for quality of historical evidence and reliability of interpretation, this is always a problem with history because secrets can be told only when those who kept them are dead. But we have access to much data about technology and its evolution, even through archaeology, as what remains of civilizations is frequently mostly tools, so we can make connections and interpretations from those. The technology explosion that started to gain momentum even before the Industrial Revolution necessitated careful record keeping and increasingly detailed data sets, so we can compare, say, output in textile mills that switched from water to electrical power when certain technologies combined. As far as evidence goes, we have a vast amount of historical evidence on connective innovation compared to the fossil record on evolution – in fact it may be useful to see connective innovation as a big part of a theory of cultural evolution, something we’re still working out in how it connects to biological evolution.
For practical purposes, there are many things I like about the theory. It takes into account the organic and accidental nature of innovations, which aren’t entirely predictable or foreseeable. One of the things most of us understand but are likely to forget is that many transformative innovations are total accidents, involving unforeseen uses of a technology devised for something else entirely. In an example close at hand, virtual reality was invented for gaming and is now finding a huge range of other applications in global communications and design that were completely unexpected. Much of the accidental nature of innovation also occurs when technologies combine unexpectedly, as when railroads began to see that the telegraph could help to coordinate traffic, shipments, and schedules, which were enabled by the adoption of standard time zones ( a social organization-based non-technology innovation but one crucial to the global economy). Factoring into the accidental nature of innovation is the fact that anyone can play, including you. Many innovations are stumbled upon by regular folks – shepherds or farmers or accountants – who happen to be in the right place at the right time and put two and two together. This phenomena plays into the American Dream of the independent inventor genius, but in a larger sense it’s a function of the network effect. We’re seeing the value of big social networks increasing as more people join them- this also increases the individual contributions to the network that ach person makes, which definitely include accidental innovations. Another part of connective innovation theory I like is that not every important innovation is a technology, with wires or engines or batteries or lenses. Some of the most profound and transformative innovations are forms of social organization that are facilitated by technology to be sure, but could (and did) exist independently of it, like the sharing economy, otherwise known as“barter.” And I think what I like most about a theory of connection is that – surprise – its about connections. Everything is far more connected than we realize, and digging into the history of any innovation anywhere inevitable leads to the history of, well, pretty much everything else. No one is quite the master of this narrative like James Burke, who is always capable of connecting the dots in very short order between, say, ant language, saltshakers, Queen Elizabeth, and electroshock therapy.
In the New Yorker article, Lepore concludes a point with “…the world’s not getting any better but our devices are getting newer.” I love this line for how it sums up so much, not least the prevalence of planned obsolescence in our industrial culture, which has a fascinating history that I’m happy to fill you in on if you’ll indulge the digression.
In his excellent history Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, David E. Nye explains that some of the unintended and unforeseen results of industrial electrification included both rapid labor turnover due to the insufferable boredom of performing singular repetitive tasks on production lines, and the emergence of planned obsolescence to satisfy a buying public suddenly faced with a tidal wave of undifferentiated consumer products. In order to sustain demand, products now had to be new all the time, and the basic approach of American industrial design was born- make a solid core of the systems that did the real work (motor, drive train, brakes, etc.) and retool the package every year. Thus what was a rational economic response at the time became utterly embedded in our entire industrial infrastructure, and has resulted today in movements like William McDonaugh’s Cradle to Cradle, which seeks to rethink and replace this outmoded paradigm. Expectation of relentless newness in products and everything else is at the heart of our value system in the United States. Planned obsolescence eventually came to have more sinister connotation, that we’re getting cheated by companies, and wasting energy and materials (both true) but back in the 1920s and 30s it was widely promulgated as the a pillar of our economy. It was intimately bound up with our idea of the modern world – completely enabled by electrification – and the idea of human destiny as inevitable “progress,“ primarily technological, towards increasing complexity.
Robert Wright in his book Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny, talks about what he calls moral progress. Wright is a fascinating thinker, and has done much to bring me around to, of all things, reconciling science and religion. I started on this path with E.O. Wilson’s assertion that science explains religion better than the other way around. But after reading Wright’s Nonzero, I’ve evolved my understanding of morality considerably. Because I was never religious in the first place, like so many people, I struggled to understand what might be termed “the logic of human destiny,” which is undeniably a mouthful (or a “mind-ful,” as it were). But with help from folks like Darwin, Wilson, and Wright, once I begun to see that adaptive mechanisms like reciprocal altruism are common in many species and have a certain mathematical logic that confers advantage to the species that practice them. So suspending your individual needs briefly for the good of the group ends up being a better survival strategy, even for the individual. The fact that we have a big brain capable of long term memory helps us to execute this strategy, and in fact these two adaptations are probably co-dependent. Reciprocal altruism is basically what all religions teach, and herein lies the basic architecture of morality, something we now need to focus on bigtime if we’re going to live in a world we don’t ruin first in our headlong rush to survive. We can use connective innovation as a template for how to do this, provided that one of the things we connect most with is the planet itself.
As Lepore says, “people aren’t disk drives.” A theory that attempts to explain how technology companies were born and died in the latter half of the 20th century is certainly important and valuable, but the spectrum of data upon which it relies is a bit too narrow to build a useful theory. In my world, I work with people in charge of making and managing the built environment and its components and systems. Many of us routinely make difficult decisions with long term, scale effect consequences that can be hard to predict or even understand. A theory like connective innovation that says “seek combinations and connections” rather than “lets blow up another global industry today” helps us to overcome inertia, bust professional and organizational silos that hold back innovation and progress, and see things in social, political, behavioral, experiential, economic, and yes, moral terms instead of just purely technological terms. Today we have an unprecedented number of classes of new technologies as well as new (or if you know your history, sort of recycled) forms of social organization, like crowdsourcing and the sharing economy to play with. If you can bring yourself to see it as one huge board game (which is kind of is in a way – it’s easily “gamified”) it can just look like we have more to work with to solve our problems, even if the tools we have are sometimes part of the problem. By factoring social, environmental, and moral elements as drivers we can begin to learn how to isolate the important problems to solve first, then use our increasingly rich technology to solve them. I’ve actually begun to gamify this myself, in something I call “Net-Zero Nonzero Combo,” a charrette framework for solving problems with Smart City solutions.
Perhaps the fate of “disruption” rather proves one point of “connective innovation” which is that a theory created to explain one specific behavior gets used to explain and justify a whole lot else, and in the end, not that well- by attacking it w bring a connective process to improve and – we could of course say “disrupt”– it! I know that Silicon Valley technocrats like Steve Jobs, Marc Andreesen, Larry Page, Sergey Brin are not Dr. Evil but genuinely see that changing humanity with technology by better design is not only possible but necessary. Of course it’s better to make voting, mail, transportation, housing, agriculture, energy, and everything else more efficient and ultimately more available for everyone. But the misapplication of a somewhat obscure and academic theory has contributed to our becoming way too focused on technology alone, with its ensuing disruption and chaos, and not on seeking equilibrium and stability, the real goals of sustainability, and ultimately, our survival. Biological evolution drives cultural evolution, not the other way around, (not yet).