The late Clay Christensen was a key influence in many of the Silicon Valley powerhouses. A key moment in this journey was 1997 when “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.” was published.
With this book, he popularized his theory of disruptive innovation.
At the same time, he started a movement of misunderstanding. People were taking up his theory while referring themselves only to the term “disruptive innovation”.
He experienced the natural phenomenon that people take up an idea and start to transform it. May it be with their curiosity for the idea or their lack of understanding of the idea.
Someone who shared this experience in a very different field is Stephen Karpman. The drama triangle he designed based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis has been transformed multiple times. Google lists it with 93,7 million results which is about five times as many as Transactional Analysis itself.
It’s the dilemma of sharing an idea and wanting it to be seen. An easy to grasp label eases it’s spread. At the same time, its popularity leads to uses out of context, because of its popular element.
Users of the term “disruptive innovation” started to apply it as a synonym for anything new or transformative. Which is a much broader use than the theory applies to. This worried Christensen as such a unique denominator could lead to seeing a common strategy in the successes of companies rising the top instead of the actual reasons.
The way Christensen taught it was to explain that a true disruptive innovation, first appealed only to a niche market and appeared less attractive than the powerful incumbent it eventually usurped.
Looking back, Christensen would have preferred to have used other terms such as type 1 innovations and type 2 innovations assuming that when the terms are vague enough they would force people to read and understand his work more closely. But, when he tried to do so, it was too late. The name had stuck.
But, what he did succeed with, was to keep the theory an open one. He was very aware of the fact that his theory needed further investigation and even more so, would benefit from continuous research.
He once told highlighted the importance of criticism in an interview: “Never does a theory just pop out in complete form. But rather, the first appearance of the theory is half-baked. Then it improves when people say, ‘it doesn’t account for this,’ or ‘this is an anomaly and it doesn’t explain that.’ It’s very important to have people willing to criticize it for that purpose.”
In a continuously evolving world, the best protection of an idea is the willingness to see it evolve and support that movement.