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Loosely Coupled weblog

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Disruptive insight

Ideas that were once fresh and innovative eventually become stale and hackneyed. A simple insight, convincingly expressed, can catapult a young academic into the limelight, launching a stellar career of glowing citations, lucrative conference appearances and best-selling business books. But as time progresses, the need to sustain that career leads to increasingly complex embellishments and refinements to the original idea. The established guru is faced with a simple choice: should he make incremental improvements to a very lucrative concept that audiences love, or should he invest a lot of effort in researching and developing fresh insights that nobody has ever expressed any interest in hearing about?

That was the thought that struck me as I read Phil Windley's account of OSBC2004: Clayton Christensen on Disruptive Technologies and Open Source, a presentation by the author of The Innovator's Dilemma and, more recently, The Innovator's Solution. Not that I believe Clayton Christensen has run out of steam; far from it: I'm a great fan of his work. But I am starting to fear that he may overcomplicate his message with unnecessary add-ons that risk obscuring the core concept for some readers.

I do feel though that the original insight is as fresh and as relevant as it was the day he first formulated it, and that the concept of disruptive innovation can even be applied to the field of academic thinking — which, after all, is just another market. A truly disruptive insight is one that starts out languishing in the wilderness. No one gets it, and it runs so counter to the collective wisdom of the academic establishment that they either ridicule it or, worse, they simply ignore it. But if its time has come, it gradually gains ground until eventually it takes its place in the mainstream canon. At that point, a truly insightful thinker faces an uncomfortable dilemma: does he continue to pursue disruptive ideas, and end up reviled and rejected like Socrates? Or does he accept the applause of the crowd and forswear any further disruptive thinking?

One additional item, then, that startups might add to Christensen's list of questions to ask themselves: "Which management gurus are offering fresh insights that will give us an edge in today's business climate?" Classics like Christensen should certainly be on everyone's reading list, but gaining an edge means seeking out the next generation's winning ideas, too.

posted by Phil Wainewright 10:30 AM (GMT) | comments | link

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