By: Kirk Kardashian, Tuck School of Business Posted: Feb 24th, 2015

This past summer, New Yorker staff writer and Harvard University historian Jill Lepore wrote an essay that drew the attention of business thinkers and practitioners everywhere. It was called “The Disruption Machine,” and was highly critical of Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” a work that has become something akin to the Bible for managers. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, had argued that established firms are time and again usurped—in his word, disrupted—by small upstarts that tap markets the big companies don’t even know exist.  Christensen and several members of the press expressed surprise and dismay at Lepore’s criticism.

That wasn’t the case with Andrew King, a professor of business administration at Tuck.  In the wake of The Innovator’s Dilemma, King and co-author Chris Tucci published two articles testing the disruption theory and showing its flaws and limited predictive power. The first of these articles, “Can Old Disk Drive Companies Learn New Tricks?”, was published in 1999 in the Proceedings of the Product Development Management Conference.  It directly tested the theory in the same context Christensen had used to prove it: disk-drive producers in business from the 1970s to 1990s. The paper showed that most of Christensen’s claims didn’t stand up:  Incumbent firms were not late to enter new markets, they were more likely to be successful than entrants, and strong firms survived and even dominated across multiple markets.

In a second, more theoretical paper published in 2001 in Management Science, King and Tucci developed and tested a rival theory that the choice to enter new markets was based on production experience: those with greater experience tended to enter new markets, while those with lesser experience tended to play out their hand.  Based on a quantitative study of 200 firms, they showed that this normal process of strategic choice and competitive selection explained the history of the industry.

Andrew King is an unusual scholar to be taking on Christensen’s theory, because it is quite far from his main research interests in sustainability and industry self-regulation. It was only when the theory of disruption expended into these realms that his curiosity was piqued. In the late 1990s, scholars and pundits began to argue that firms should pour money into products for the poorest people in the world—the so called “base of the pyramid”—because this represented the next disruptive market.  Such investments were supposed to be the ultimate triple win: increasing first-world profits, raising living standards, and simultaneously alleviating pressure on the natural environment. “I was skeptical of such a magic bullet,” King said, “and so I decided to look into the theory on which it was based.”

King and Tucci’s papers made a stir among academics, but popular ideas about the abundance of disruptions and win-win opportunities proved too well ingrained to be debunked by inconvenient facts. “We convinced most top scholars of industry evolution, and that helped me get a job at Tuck,” King said, “but most people remained infatuated with idea of marvelous disruptive innovations. Perhaps that is finally changing. Jill Lepore has a large following, and her article may cause to people reconsider the evidence. My job as a scholar, as I saw it, was to test the predictive power of the theory. Once I had an answer, I went back to my main area of research.”


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Read the entire series!

Part 1 - Tuck Strategists: The history of “strategy”
Part 2 - Vijay Govindarajan
Part 3 - Richard D'Aveni
Part 4 - Constance Helfat
Part 5 - Sydney Finkelstein
Part 6 - Giovanni Gavetti
Part 7 - Ron Adner
Part 8 - Andrew King

Article originally published on Tuck.edu, December 12, 2014.

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