From our perspective it was pure coincidence that this summer also saw publication in The New Yorker of Jill Lepore’s 6,000-word take-down of Clayton Christensen’s classic The Innovator’s Dilemma. But for driving home the value of the story of the firm Chair and the GC, it could not have come at a better time.

I won’t attempt to do justice to Lepore’s full-frontal assault on The Innovator’s Dilemma (I commend it to you, however), but if anyone ever wanted to launch a donnybrook over a classic business text, Lepore has given it her best shot. Consider just a few quick excerpts:

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism… partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism [and partly because] innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box. [This era of disruption’s peaceable reign may be about to end with a bang—Bruce.]

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). 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. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met. [Broadside #1—Bruce.]

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” consists of a set of handpicked case studies, beginning with the disk-drive industry. “Nowhere in the history of business has there been an industry like disk drives,” Christensen writes, which makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries. [The shiv is officially out—Bruce.]

I won’t spoil Lepore’s entertaining exegesis for you any further, nor are these the pages in which to pass final judgment on whether Christensen unearthed a timeless insight or whether it’s yet another hot air balloon rapidly running out of fuel.

Christensen  fired back through the pages of BloombergBusinessweek:

Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.

And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

Be that as it may, the concept and frankly the threat, are very much on every thinking lawyer’s mind these days.

My own view—and where the Lepore/Christensen bar fight may come to rest—reflects my own appreciation for the strength of both the disruptors from below and the entrenched from above.

As the FT put it in its Attack on Clayton Christensen’s theory falls wide of the mark:

The New Yorker article is a useful corrective for overzealous executives and consultants who took a 17-year-old idea and turned it into a religion. But complacent managers and smug strategists who think they can return to a golden age of known rivals and predictable markets should not take comfort from it.

In other words, my view is that (a) innovators are the lifeblood of capitalism (thank you, Schumpeter) and also that (b) incumbents have real resources including capital, talent, and a client base. In other words, my hunch is that neither Lepore nor Christensen is right 100% of the time: Neither the Visigoths nor the Romans win every encounter: Usually, in fact, it depends.

One thing I will confidently predict, however: Disruption happens when the incumbents squander their resources.

Various are the ways incumbents can fail to rise to the occasion: Occasionally it’s through perverse and misguided management and decision-making, but far more often it’s through complacency: Preferring comfort to challenge, the familiar and well-trod channels to the bivouac into the uncharted, and drifting along in the soft well-known pleasantries over honestly and fearlessly confronting reality.

This brings us back to Narcissus. Whatever else Narcissus was (or wasn’t) thinking during this episode, those thoughts were not about the firm and its competitive position in the market. The thoughts were focused on what made one individual personally comfortable—and unconsciously (we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) assuming they were in charge here.

We have news for all the Narcissus’s out there:

  • Firm first and firm always;
  • Your personal comfort zone, your customary preferences, and your cozy habits have nothing to do with anything anymore;
  • And finally, the firm is not your oyster; you are neither King nor Queen.

Less than a year ago, Christensen wrote in Harvard Business Review that the Visigoths are on the horizon for management consulting and for law. Lepore might rebut that the Romans (that would be us) have hundreds of thousands of talented people and billions of dollars of revenue and profit.

We’re telling you that if you have too many Narcissus’s in your firm, our money is on the Visigoths.

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