The Disruption Machine

The Disruption Machine

What the gospel of innovation gets wrong.

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The concept of disruptive innovation has informed boardroom decisions ever since Clayton M. Christensen introduced it in his now classic 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. The theory has been guiding discourse on public schools, higher education, health care, and more. Meanwhile, few are questioning the theory’s underlying evidence. In this New Yorker essay, Harvard historian Jill Lepore takes a close look at the origins of the popular theory and provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on one of today’s most widespread yet poorly understood assumptions.


Disruption has become the defining term of the early 21th century.

Each historical era has its dominant theory of history to explain why things in the past happened like they did. The 18th-century Enlightenment championed the idea of progress as the driving force of human history. The 19th century embraced the theory of evolution, while the 20th century explained the world through the lens of “growth” and later “innovation.” The early 21st century, meanwhile, embraces “disruption” as the defining feature of change. The word “disruption” – as opposed to “innovation” – connotes the promise that those who disrupt will be saved from becoming obsolete.

For corporations as well as educational and governmental institutions, the concept of disruption dominates the discourse. It influences decision making almost everywhere today.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, introduced the concept of disruption to the public discourse.

In 1997, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen published his book The Innovator’s ...

About the Author

Jill Lepore is professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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