Disruption is getting disrupted.

After a couple of years of disruption being a Thing, with every new company proclaiming that it was out to disrupt an industry, there’s starting to be a disruption backlash. Yes, it’s true. Disruption has entered the Trough of Disappointment, as Gartner would say.

The most recent volley in this war on disruption was fired by Jill Lepore in her June 23, 2014 article in The New Yorker (which has been available online since June 17), in which she criticizes Clayton Christensen’s seminal The Innovator’s Dilemma. (She’s not too big on “innovation,” either.) “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” She goes on to cite a number of cases where companies and industries disrupted, only to do badly.

Lepore isn’t the first person to critique Christensen, but her piece has gained quite a bit of traction. Several other writers immediately leapt on the anti-disruption bandwagon. “I'm not opposed to the concept of disruptive innovation, just the incessant droning on about it, and the unfortunately common practice among corporate executives of blindly waving the flag of disruption instead of engaging in real discussions about their creations,” writes Kevin Roose in New York magazine, where he covers business and technology.

Roose also points out that, by Christensen’s own definition, most of the companies identifying themselves and their creations these days as “disruptive” actually aren’t. “‘Disruptive’ doesn't mean ‘inventive,’ ‘unorthodox,’ or ‘cool,’” he writes. “Christensen defined ‘disruptive innovation’ as the process by which ‘technologically straightforward’ services and products target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders.”

Many of the things touted as “disruptive” aren’t starting at the bottom end, he notes.

Some commentators took on the topic of why this concept of disruption was so eagerly embraced in the first place, with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek suggesting that the notion of disruption fits in with where we are politically and societally, as well as with Silicon Valley’s image of itself as a change agent. “Disruption as an explanation and a strategy is well-suited to our political and economic moment: Terrorists want to kill us, the weather is getting weird, the global financial system might melt down,” he writes. “And it’s self-perpetuating: The more business executives go around trying to execute disruptive strategies, the more disruptive things get, only exacerbating the perceived need for even more disruptive strategies to keep up.”

At the same time, other writers—particularly ones who have made a living plugging “disruption”—are cautioning people not to throw the disruptive baby out with the bathwater. “Failure is an essential part of Christensen's theory,” writes Timothy Lee, who was cited in Lepore’s article, in Vox. “So the fact that the specific disruptive companies Christensen backed failed doesn't really contradict his theory, which doesn't say anything about which firms will best capitalize on a disruptive trend or even which disruptive technologies will have the biggest impact.”

Christensen himself also weighed in on the discussion, first conceding that Lepore had some points. “I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory,” he tells Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He went on, however, to note that she did not acknowledge that he has subsequently addressed the flaws she identifies in his theory, nor talk to him for the article. “Every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one!”

To a certain extent, the whole flurry of articles, including Lepore’s own, comes off as the New York publishing world’s version of inside baseball, with Lepore using the New York Times’s recently leaked innovation report as one example of the not-entirely-useful anxiety engendered by the specter of disruption. The Times’s own Paul Krugman also weighed in on the discussion.

For their parts, Internet-first publishers such as Vox and Slate are using this opportunity to paint The New Yorker and The New York Times as fuddy-duddies that disparage disruption in a vain attempt to avoid the cold hard truth (in Vox and Slate’s opinion, at least) that they are on the verge of being disrupted themselves. 

Slate’s Will Oremus eventually does grudgingly concede that disruptors don’t always win, and that, in fact, established businesses might harm themselves more by overreacting than underreacting. And that’s really the two-part lesson from this whole series of disruption articles:

  1. It’s not enough to just be disruptive—you have to have a plan for what comes after.
  2. Disruption is usually better seen in hindsight than diagnosed in the moment or perceived ahead of time. You’ve got your business and you’re humming along, and then suddenly, boom, some upstart has stolen half your market share.

This last part of the lesson, in particular, underscores why it’s important for established companies not to be complacent. They need to be constantly scanning the horizon, as well as looking over their shoulders for whoever might be creeping up from behind (or from lower down the value chain), and they need to be open to change when threats are perceived.

If nothing else, the result of this whole scuffle may be that you might want to back off on using the term “disruption” just a tad.

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