Christensen #3 – Building a Theory

In perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most novel) lecture, Clay gave a meta-explanation of the Innovator’s Dilemma, using it to illustrate the process of building a theory.

This lecture should perhaps be required viewing for MSc and PhD students, not least because it shows how long it takes to get from empirical observation to well founded theory (roughly 10 years!).

A particularly important distinction is that between correlation (empirical observation) and causation (ie formulation of explanatory theory). A good theory should be able to predict, or at least guide strategic decisions. OR as Christensen more colourfully put it

you are standing on the deck of a ship, but without a theory all you see is fog

Another interesting theme is the role of anomalies as useful probes to be explored rather than problems to be mitigated.  This, for me, is the difference between a ‘researcher’ and a ‘project manager’ (or as Myers-Briggs has it, ‘perceiving’ vs ‘judging’).

In the questions, the topic of education came up. I was very interested to hear Christensen’s perception on this – the distinction between online courses which are sustaining innovations (and hence often created by the Universities themselves) and true disruptions (eg corporate Universities created by firms that cannot afford to pay Harvard grad salaries)

Another question (a common criticism of Christensen-style disruption) is whether high end disruption is possible. Christensen appears to take a hardline position here, stating that you can only disrupt someone ‘higher’ than yourself in the market (and this of course makes you vulnerable to further low end disruption)

An aside: I work at the interface between Engineering and Management. So I was particularly amused to hear Prof Christensen poking fun at the so-called ‘objectivity’ of numerical data (for example costing figures, which often rely on byzantine calculations and rest on dubious assumptions).

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