1

Chances are, you’re reading this review on an example of disruptive technology. An iPhone or other smartphone. An iPad or a notebook computer. Or simply a laptop. Every one of these devices turned its industry upside down when it was introduced, driving established companies to the brink of insolvency, or even into oblivion, and paving the way for new actors to enter the landscape.

Today, almost instinctively, we understand the concept of disruptive technology. But it wasn’t until after the publication in 1995 of an article by Clayton Christensen in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Disruptive technologies: catching the wave” that the term entered the language. That seminal article was followed in 1997 by Christensen’s path-finding book, The Innovator’s Dilemma—one of the most influential business books of all time.

Why do successful firms fail?

Christensen, a long-time professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, had found an answer to a question that long mystified the business community: why had such iconic, well-managed firms as Digital Equipment Corporation, Xerox, and dozens of others that had long led their industries fallen by the wayside? The professor’s answer was not that they had simply gotten behind technologically but that they had done everything right—listening carefully to their best customers and catering to their needs by investing in sustaining technologies that offered customers added value.


The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen ★★★☆☆


Disruptive technologies upend the playing field

The problem was that the dictates of prudent business practice prevented them from investing in the sort of innovation that could turn their own industries upside down: disruptive technologies. In fact, Christensen wrote, “the only instances in which mainstream firms have successfully established a timely position in a disruptive technology were those in which the firms’ managers set up an autonomous organization charged with building a new and independent business around the disruptive technology . . . There is something about the way decisions get made in successful organizations that sows the seeds of eventual failure.”

The reader’s dilemma with The Innovator’s Dilemma

Two decades ago this was a shattering insight and it explains the acclaim that Christensen’s work has received throughout the world of business. However, if you turn to his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, in search of deeper understanding of these concepts, you may be disappointed. I was.

Sadly, this book is organized and written in a style that reeks of old-fashioned academia. Chapter One, an introduction of sorts, sums up the book as a whole—in 26 tedious pages, explaining in detail what the reader will find, chapter by chapter. First, Chapter One briefly outlines what the book will reveal, then proceeds to repeat each point in detail. Then, as though that isn’t enough, each chapter repeats the same points, adding considerably more detail. The final chapter repeats each of the major points—again.

The repetition is maddening

The repetition is maddening. And so is the overuse of the passive tense, which abounds throughout. Compounding the problem are the long-winded explanations of such things as how disk drives work and the distinction between thin-film technology and ferrite-oxide technology in disk drives’ read/write heads. All this material, no doubt necessary to “prove” Christensen’s thesis to his academic peers (some of whom are still not convinced), gives the book the charm and box-office appeal of a PhD dissertation about the influence of the Greek concept of the soul in 13th Century French literature.

If all you want is to get to the meat of this book and avoid slogging through endless detail about matters only an engineer could love, read the first chapter and the last one. Forget the rest. You’ll thank me.

For additional reading

This is one of the Best books about innovation reviewed here.

Like to read books about business? Check out My 10 favorite books about business history.

If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.