March 17, 2018

Damage Control: Disrupting the Disrupters | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterHarvard historian Jill Lepore’s takedown of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in The New Yorker has been getting a lot of attention—some of it defensive and critical, including candid remarks from Christensen himself in an interview at Bloomberg Businessweek. After railing at “Jill” for what he characterizes as “a criminal act of dishonesty,” the interviewer asks, “You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?” Christensen replies, “I’ve never met her in my life.”

Well, that puts her in her place, doesn’t it? Those damned scribbling women.

Twitter subsequently presented me with a fascinating analysis of how this theory has influenced higher education. (Twitter, in spite of its focus on celebrities and self-promotion, has become a huge part of my personal learning network. Thank you, Twitter friends.) The author, UC Santa Barbara professor Chris Newfield, provides a short history of how Christensen’s theory reversed a management trend popularized in the 1980s and 1990s by Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence, 1982), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline, 1990), and Peter Drucker (who outlined the rise of a knowledge economy and the decline of capital as an instrument of wealth-creation in Post-Capitalist Society in 1993). These management theorists believed that a technological society would depend on the empowerment of knowledge workers, who ideally would have the latitude to take action to keep companies ahead of change. Newfield traces Christensen’s lineage to Joseph A. Schumpeter of “creative destruction” fame:

For both of these thinkers, the entrepreneur is the fountainhead of new value, and capital must be pulled out of less productive uses and allocated to the entrepreneur, who is the privileged source of all future of wealth-creation . . . The resulting wreckage and waste is part of progress, and must not be reduced through regulation. This is true for shuttered factories, and also for high levels of inequality: both are part of liberating the entrepreneur to create the greater wealth of the future.

Essentially, individual entrepreneurs are considered valuable because they find cheaper ways to reach new markets, which has the unfortunate side effect of smashing up existing markets. We don’t want smart and knowledgeable workers, because they will frustratingly improve things incrementally rather throw everything out in the race to cut costs and get ahead of entrepreneurial smash-a-thons. What Christensen’s theory accomplished, according to Newfield, was recapturing power that had been distributed to workers and vesting it, once again, in upper management.

Employees’ passion for excellence isn’t an asset, it’s a problem. They get too attached to the mission, too used to having agency, too committed, too good at what they do. Disruption requires dismantling things to enable a kind of scorched-earth renewal. (Sounds a bit like the Khmer Rouge and its Year Zero, doesn’t it?) Renewal is driven by leaders who don’t need any experience in the industry they are disrupting. Quite the reverse! Expertise only gets in the way. As Newfield interprets this management theory shift, a significant benefit of disruptive innovation theory is that it concentrates power in far fewer hands, using the fear of being disrupted as an excuse. As Lepore puts it, “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” When we’re scared, we are more likely to look to powerful visionaries and follow their orders—more likely to feel helpless, so less inclined to resist something that we’re told is inevitable.

I admit I wasn’t really paying much attention to Drucker and Senge and Peters back in the day, but this is illuminating to me, and it makes so much sense of what has happened to higher education in the past 15 years. It also makes me reflect on library management. The libraries that seem to function best are those where librarians and other staff aren’t hobbled by the need to ask permission and feel safe trying out new things—no, feel excited about trying new things, even if they might flop. There is a difference, though, between this spirit of experimentation and the tech mantra “fail early, fail often.” There is a huge amount of waste and frantic churning in the venture capital–funded Silicon Valley start-up culture, a kind of applied fast capitalism that chews through money (and people) in the hope that sooner or later gold will be struck. The library that welcomes librarians who practice curiosity and experimentation routinely while constantly expanding their expertise is the kind of organization that Christensen believes will be disrupted—ones with knowledgeable, committed workers who constantly try to improve on what their organization is doing and make it work really well.

The rhetoric of change in libraries is often about external threats and inevitable destruction. It’s almost Millennialist in its invocation of the separation of the ready from the unready, the elect who will be saved and the masses who will be cast into darkness. I was recently at a conference where, if I was counting accurately, a library director referred to irrelevance four times in five minutes. We forget, sometimes, that healthy libraries change constantly and get quite good at it—if the librarians working in those libraries are treated like adults and are able to participate in the governance of the organization as experts who are committed to making the library as good as it can be. They are aware of the environment they are in. They know how relevant their work is. Being told irrelevance is imminent is like being told “hurry, get down in the basement, a storm is coming!” while knowing the sky is blue and the radar is clear. But pretty soon people are running for shelter, and all you can do is try to use reason to prevent a stampede, knowing reason is not always persuasive in a panic situation.

Making things better isn’t what the gospel of disruption is about. Breaking things in order to create a different, faster, cheaper thing is. There are better, more effective, more affordable ways to make academic enterprises effective. Newfield thinks things can be turned around, but simply recognizing expertise and sharing power isn’t enough. We need to act on our core values, which for libraries include democracy, social responsibility, and the public good. Cutting costs and crushing the competition aren’t on the list.

Newfield concludes on a hopeful note:

The historical tragedy of the Schumpeter-Christensen model is that it elevated a managerial class that opposed the democratization of invention we now can’t do without. The good news is that there’s no reason to make the same mistake twice.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. There are consultants, and then there are people who actually do the stuff that’s needed. I would be amused, were I not so tired, at how we are told we must be (insert phrase here: maker spaces, disruptive, change-agents . . .) because what we are doing isn’t enough. Well, given that many of us are having enough problems trying to meet current demands, it isn’t very (insert phrase here: effective, marginally effective, cost-efficient/effective, smart) to trash current customers in hopes of being the library of the future (insert phrase here: have state of the art sewing machines, be one big huge Cool Tool, you name it). I’ve seen all sorts of mgmt fads come and go, both in libraries and in business, and some of them are downwright dangerous. So much for “empowering employees” and “being a leader wherever you are”, huh? Or is that too 2013?

    • Barbara says:

      I think you’ve hit on something interesting, Sarah – that piece of change narrative that suggests what we already do is either boring, not as valuable as the things we aren’t doing, or are actually holding us back. There are times when we need to stop doing something or adjust how much time and effort we’re putting into something because it’s no longer a priority. But sometimes in the rush to grab the shiny, we disparage things that our communities value and imply that they have no worth and anyone who thinks they do is just behind the times and in the way.

      That said, it’s hard in many library organizations to try new things or get the resources allocated to a new program that is seen as an extra rather than something really valuable. I know of situations where a new hire is expected to take care of everything new because many staff aren’t willing to learn new things or allow their personal priorities to be questioned. That’s pretty dysfunctional, too.

      I think the best organizations are the ones in which a shared mission, shared decision-making (very contrary to the gospel of disruption), and a default position of “let’s give it a try” rather than “you have to prove it’s worth doing and will succeed before we’ll do it.” Because things change and people want to be creative. It’s just that change doesn’t have to be destructive. We all have the capacity to grow and learn and should be given a chance to do so.

    • Don’t even get me started on, um, short-term people who want to make their mark.

  2. This is a welcome commentary on Lepore’s significant article and the reaction to it. Libraries peddle media produced by industries that have been disrupted – music, film, books – so it’s easy to say they are/will be disrupted, too. The national data show otherwise – libraries are still being used heavily by the public. Print demand co-exists with increased consumption of the e-books we loan. I agree with Fister that passionate librarians in open, learning organizations can find ways to be cost-effective and creative in meeting the needs of their academic, school, company and community. That said, history has shown that as a profession, we tend to be conservative in our approaches and adjustment to consumer trends. Why can’t we aspire to be disrupting libraries, and find our communities a newer, better, faster, cheaper to do something?

  3. Thank you for this very welcome editorial. The main point for me is that “creative destruction” is a model for companies to maximize profit and crush competition; public institutions and organizations, however, have a higher calling. I agree with what Barbara (above) says. With a strong sense of shared purpose, we can try new things without being destructive in the process. “Creative destruction” is an ideology that should be argued and qualified; I’m heartened by Lepore’s article, and by the article here.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I appreciate you bringing this debate to our attention – I was unaware of it. I hadn’t considered the implications of Christensen’s theory in the way Newfield describes…my intro to Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma was through David Lewis’ article of a similar name, in which he applies the theory to libraries. This article made – and still makes – a good deal of sense to me. I followed up with reading a bit of Christensen’s book, and am familiar with the other thinkers listed, but am by no means as well-versed as I could be, In any case, I never read the theory as suggesting we throw out everything we are doing, but rather to ensure we do welcome both those who wish to try something new along with those who are working to make things incrementally better, and to support them both. We need both! I agree wholeheartedly that we librarians need to stop leading the panic charge – and I must thank you for your Critical Assets study/article from 2010. It has had a great deal of influence on the way I think about what we do, helping me to think about what to make of the cries of irrelevance I hear from some colleagues but cannot see in my own work…whether it be “traditional” or “innovative.” Cheers!

  5. Barbara says:

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments. For me, a key issue is whether librarians can do nifty new things without having to prove they are totally likely to succeed ahead of time or only do them as extras, after all the “real work” gets done. Top-heavy decision making or decisions that have to go through layers of committees makes no sense to me.

    That said, I’m really troubled by the idea that change is led by singular entrepreneur-leaders who make all the decisions for everyone else. My favorite word for a balance of individuals being free to get projects of their own off the ground without interference and more collective decision-making is “adhocracy” – which I think is actually practiced in the most creative libraries, whether it’s reflected in their organization chart or not.

    • I’m reading this again in the print version and it is sheer genius. Why does change always have to be “disruptive”? I suppose because it is controlled by “change agents” and “visionaries” and not done incrementally as time and resources and “fiddling” permit. One person’s vision could be another person’s hallucination.