‘Disruptive innovation’ detractor responds to criticisms

Andrew King is a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.
Dartmouth College
Andrew King is a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Andrew King, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, is co-author of “How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” which questioned the soundness of the theory of “disruptive innovation” by Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. Globe correspondent Jay Fitzgerald asked him to respond to Christensen’s criticism of the article, published in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Q: Clay Christensen questioned the “rigor of their (the authors) research,” noting that your interviews amounted to about one interview per case of the 77 cases you looked at. Response?

A: He is correct that we should have more observations if our goal is to be certain about the judgment of each case, but that is not our goal. Instead, we want to estimate the predictive power of the theory as a whole. For that we actually have 77 data points. In other words, we do not claim to be confident in each expert’s assessment of a particular case, but we do claim to be confident in our assessment that only a minority (~9 percent ) actually fit the story.

Imagine if you asked 77 college recruiters to separately assess the chance that each of 77 high school students would get into Stanford, and in aggregate they estimate that only 9 percent will be admitted. Surely, these recruiters will be wrong about some students (one may unexpectedly get in, another unexpectedly get rejected), but their aggregate assessment should be pretty close.

Q: He said the authors of the MIT Sloan piece failed to test the “usefulness of the theory.” Response?

A: I’m not sure I understand the critique. Is he saying the title should have been “How applicable is the theory of [disruptive innovaton]?” My sense is we tested the degree to which the theory is generally applicable and predictive. “Useful” was the shorthand we chose for the title.

Q: Finally, he did acknowledge he met with you earlier this year, before publication, “but he (King) never told me about the existence of the [Sloan Management Review] article.” Response?


A: I don’t believe I mentioned any journal by name. When we met, neither of my recent two papers on the topic had been accepted (one is still under review). I did mention that I was working on a paper on the topic. I challenged him on the details of several cases. He surely will remember that.