Sometimes buzzwords become so pervasive they’re almost inaudible, which is when we need to start listening to them. Disruptive is like that. It floats in the ether at ideas festivals and TED talks; it vanishes into the jargon cluttering the pages of Forbes and Harvard Business Review. There’s a quarterly called Disruptive Science and Technology; a Disruptive Health Technology Institute opened this summer. Disruptive doesn’t mean what it used to, of course. It’s no longer the adjective you hope not to hear in parent-teacher conferences. It’s what you want investors to say about your new social-media app. If it’s disruptive, it’s also innovative and transformational.1
We can’t often name the person who released a cliché into the linguistic ecosystem, but in this case we can, and we also know why he did it. He’s Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, and he wanted to explain why upstart enterprises drive better-established companies out of business. In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen launched the phrase that has transmogrified the English language: “disruptive innovation.”
Christensen’s theory goes like this. When a company succeeds at making and selling a gizmo, it commits itself to developing ever better gizmos, because their higher price yields larger profits. But that leaves a hole in the market quickly exploited by newcomers. They make stripped-down gizmos and sell them to consumers who hadn’t been able to afford them before. The strappy company, having found new people to market to, grows; the senior company, having narrowed its appeal, shrinks; the challenger overtakes the incumbent; and the cycle starts anew. An old example of disruptive innovation is the disk-drive market of the 1980s. As disk drives shrank, the bigger-disk makers went out of business, even though the smaller disks were arguably inferior: They held less data and cost more per byte. A newer example is the tablet, which may be relegating personal computers to history.
Christensen’s theory still has a powerful appeal, because it explains something we’ve all seen happen, even marked off our own decades by: the churning of businesses from start-ups to powerhouses to irrelevance or near-irrelevance. Me, I equate my youth with Microsoft’s apparent lock on the future of computing; we now know how fleeting that moment was. Christensen also sidestepped the obsession with leadership that bedevils management theory, stressing the tragic inevitability of market forces over the comic mishaps of shortsighted executives. It’s not that CEOs are too stupid to see disruption coming; it’s that their companies aren’t set up to make, or make money from, the new gizmos.
At least at first, Christensen deployed disruption theory to help managers cope with the revolutionary ferment from below that Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” But disruptive is now slapped onto every act of cultural defiance or technical derring-do, whether it has to do with business or not, and Christensen has not tried to rein in the word’s inflation.2 On the contrary, he has been out-punditing the pundits, publishing book after book—each with many co-authors—in which disruption theory is brought to bear first on this sector, then on that one. In the past five years, he has homed in on the social institutions—schools, public-health organizations, and the halls of government itself—he deems ripe for disruption.
You can’t blame Christensen and his co-writers for all the dumb things said and done in the name of disruption. But you can spot some unsavory habits of mind in their prescriptions. For one thing, they possess an almost utopian faith in technology: online or “blended” learning; massive open online courses, or MOOCs; cool health apps; and so on. Their convictions seem sincere, but they also coincide nicely with the interests of the Silicon Valley venture-capital crowd. If you use technology to disrupt the delivery of public services, you open up new markets; you also replace human labor with the virtual kind, a happy thought for an investor, since labor is the most expensive line item in all service-industry budgets.
Second, Christensen and his acolytes make the free-market-fundamentalist assumption that all public or nonprofit institutions are sclerotic and unable to cope with change. This leads to an urge to disrupt, preemptively, from above, rather than deal with disruption when it starts bubbling up below. Third, they don’t like participatory democracy much. “The sobering conclusion,” write Christensen and co-authors in their book about K–12 education, “is that democracy ... is an effective tool of government only in” less contentious communities than those that surround schools. “Political and school leaders who seek fundamental school reform need to become much more comfortable amassing and wielding power because other tools of governance will yield begrudging cooperation at best.”
Many well-meaning philanthropic disruptors have taken that advice to heart, and the results reveal something George Orwell pointed out, which is that stale phrases mechanically repeated have dangerous political effects. It is too soon to see how disruption will play out in public-health and government agencies, but what it has done to public schools is now becoming clear. Online charter schools, for instance, have enriched many an entrepreneur but appear to yield abysmal outcomes, including lower test scores and higher drop-out rates than those found in brick-and-mortar schools.
As for effectuating change from on high, the Broad Center in Los Angeles, funded by the billionaire Eli Broad, has worked hard to do that. The Broad Center runs an academy that recruits future superintendents from outside education. To quote from its website and a memo published last year in The Washington Post, these “transformational leaders” should share “a willingness to challenge and disrupt the status quo,” that is, “traditional, bureaucratic systems.” They should be “aggressive” “change agents,” modeling themselves on “passionate, civic-minded and disruptive” figures such as reform-oriented, urban schools chancellors Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.
But when Broad’s “change agents” move into the institutions they’ve been taught to shake up, as dozens have now done, we can see how disruption, well, disrupts—not just “the status quo,” but peoples’ lives. Teachers quit en masse or are fired. Nearby schools close, forcing students to travel to distant ones. School boards divide and bicker. Parents picket. Broad-affiliated superintendents all over the country—Atlanta; Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; Sumter, South Carolina—have resigned or been forced out after no-confidence votes, corruption or cheating scandals, or, in one case, the discovery of alleged irregularities with a doctorate degree. (That last superintendent then went to the Gates Foundation and is now in charge of Los Angeles’s school system.) “The disruption was expected to produce innovation,” writes school-reform critic Diane Ravitch in a book, Reign of Error, to be published this fall. “More typically, it produced turmoil and demoralization.”
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen suggests that companies circumvent their own inertia by creating spin-offs to try out disruptive innovations and see which ones stick. This idea, a fine one for corporations, is not so fine for governments. What spinning off public functions means in practice is privatizing them, or at least parts of them. The beneficiaries of this usually aren’t taxpayers but the companies that purvey the disruptive technologies.
Christensen and his fellow disruptors are making a category error. Not all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution, especially when the private entities tasked with disrupting government operate largely outside public view. What the institutions of a democracy should do is attend to their many disparate constituents as effectively and inclusively and openly as possible without getting creatively destroyed in the process.
Judith Shulevitz is the science editor of The New Republic.