Random finds (2016, week 8) — On disruption, leadership and Umberto Eco’s antilibrary

Mark Storm
14 min readFeb 26, 2016


Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few of the observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

Disrupt no more

In 2014, Jill Lepore, staff writer of The New Yorker and professor of history at Harvard, wrote a devastating takedown of fellow Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory (The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong).

Christensen’s theory originally came about as a way to explain the failure of businesses. But according to Lepore his theory falls far short of explaining why and how businesses and innovations actually succeed:

“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. 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.”

Since then, many commentaries have been written, both pro and con, but in Disrupt No More: Connect! Clifton Lemon (@cliftonlemon) offers an interesting approach to replace ‘disruption’. “In my cheekiness I will call it Connective Innovation,” Lemon writes.

It goes without saying that Christensen can’t be held responsible for the ‘embrace failure’ meme that surrounds this theory. It “has contributed to pervasive narcissism in a kind of get-rich-quick startup mentality, where burning through lots of other people’s money by failing in a string of startups has become a badge of honor in certain circles,” continuous Lemon.

But what is hard to ignore is the disconnect between the theory and how most of us experience the world. Back in 2007, Christensen stated that the iPhone wouldn’t succeed because it wasn’t sufficiently ‘disruptive’ to fit the theory, and more recently that also Uber isn’t truly disruptive. Both these claims don’t stand up, Lemon says, and show a serious disconnect between the academic theory and how most of us experience the world:

“Most humans think of these two amazing emergences (what do we call them really?) as the ultimate in ‘disruption,’ for better and for worse, because they’ve basically turned our world upside down — like so many other things, some technology, some social responses to or surprising uses of technology.”

In a recent interview for Forbes (Fresh Insights From Clayton Christensen On Disruptive Innovation), Steve Denning asks Christensen whether it is wrong to call what Uber is doing disruption. “Should we tell the taxi drivers that they are not being disrupted after all, and that the industry is actually being sustained, not disrupted? Is that plausible, just as a matter of English language?”

Christensen replies by saying “It’s a very important point and these are complicated issues. Uber is negatively impacting their business and has ‘disrupted’ their industry in the colloquial sense by throwing it into disarray. But as we point out in our article, it has not disrupted the industry in the technical sense of the word. It’s very important that we discipline the use of the word. If every person can define what the word ‘disruptive innovation’ means for them, then the word loses its meaning for all.”

Christensen’s academic theory shows a serious disconnect with how most of us experience the world.

I think that Christensen’s answer rather ‘proves’ the point Lemon, and also Lepore’s try to make. According to Lemon, his Connective Innovation theory supplies a better framework for understanding what’s happening to us today and for making better decisions. It builds on the idea that true transformative innovation happens when technologies and ‘social movements’ combine and connect in surprising and organic ways.

But for a theory to have utility and some predictive power it needs to “serve both as a chronicle of the past and as a model for the future; the strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it; and historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof,” says Jill Lepore. So, does Lemon’s Connective Innovation theory stand this ‘Lepore test’?

Lemon is quite right when he says he has a problem with the word prediction. He prefers something less certain, like forecasting, because “what’s most useful is a set of plausible futures, not a single one we’re likely to mistake for the certainty.” Having said that, Lemon does believe we should be able to “correlate the plausibility of a proposed limited set of outcomes with whatever actually comes to pass, thereby testing the validity of our process.”

“As a model for the future, I believe we need to study the past for evidence because, as Robert Wright says ‘there’s nowhere else to look.’ What’s happening today with the explosion of IoT technology is exhibiting many of the same patterns (even with the same exact companies, like General Electric) that electrification followed at the turn of the 20th century and the decades immediately afterwards — the similarities are particularly useful as patterns of plausible development.”

As for practical purposes, Lemon’s theory takes into account the organic and accidental nature of innovations, which aren’t entirely predictable or foreseeable. He writes:

“One of the things most of us understand but are likely to forget is that many transformative innovations are total accidents, involving unforeseen uses of a technology devised for something else entirely. […] Much of the accidental nature of innovation also occurs when technologies combine unexpectedly, as when railroads began to see that the telegraph could help to coordinate traffic, shipments, and schedules, which were enabled by the adoption of standard time zones (a social organization-based non-technology innovation but one crucial to the global economy).”

Lemon concludes his article by saying he knows that “Silicon Valley technocrats like Steve Jobs, Marc Andreesen, Larry Page, Sergey Brin are not Dr. Evil but genuinely see that changing humanity with technology by better design is not only possible but necessary. Of course it’s better to make voting, mail, transportation, housing, agriculture, energy, and everything else more efficient and ultimately more available for everyone. But the misapplication of a somewhat obscure and academic theory has contributed to our becoming way too focused on technology alone, with its ensuing disruption and chaos, and not on seeking equilibrium and stability, the real goals of sustainability, and ultimately, our survival. Biological evolution drives cultural evolution, not the other way around, (not yet).”

And the debate continues. Just now, MIT Sloan Management Review published some interesting thoughts from Joshua S. Gans. Gans holds the Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair in Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and is the author of the book (MIT Press, forthcoming in April 2016). In Keep Calm and Manage Disruption he writes:

“Using the examples of disruption that Christensen cited or anticipated, academics such as historian Jill Lepore, and Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh have attempted to test the facts against the theory by looking at questions such as whether the claimed disruptions actually ended up causing businesses in their path to fail. Although both analyses were more nuanced than determining that simple relationship, the researchers found that the claimed link between a disruptive innovation and significant trouble for established companies often did not hold up. This led them to conclude that the theory did not have a solid basis and that managers could place less weight on such concerns.”

“However, just because the hypothesized link between disruptive technologies and the failure of a company is weak does not necessarily mean disruption cannot happen,” he continuous. However, “many businesses find ways of managing through it, and this can weaken any relationship between a disruptive event and the actual disruption. To be sure, facing disruption is no picnic. But it also isn’t the existential threat that so many see it as.”

Gans continuous by outlining three strategies for managing disruption, which are, rather obviously, Beat them, Join them and Wait them out, that he will no doubt further explore in his forthcoming book (MIT Press, April 2016).

One final remark, at least for now, as Christensen and others who have deeply thought about disruption have long noted, the real enemy is complacency.

For the record: Clayton Christensen’s response to Jill Lepore and two insightful contributions to the debate

  • Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of Disruptive Innovation (Bloomberg): http://goo.gl/QItZsi.
  • On Disruption: Jill Lepore’s Timely Rebuttal of Clay Christensen (H-Diplo Essay): https://goo.gl/b0Vy6o.
  • What Jill Lepore Gets Wrong About Clayton Christensen and Disruptive Innovation (Forbes): http://goo.gl/XaM1Hv.

What is leadership, anyway?

Joshua Rothman wrote a terrific article in, again, The New Yorker, titled Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules.

Rothman begins with a poem written by Thomas Hardy: “No mortal eye could see / The intimate welding of their later history,” Hardy wrote. But, even so, “They were bent / By paths coincident / On being anon twin halves of one august event.”

Apart from being about the disaster with the Titanic, Hardy’s poem is also a theory of leadership. “For leadership to exist, a leader must cross paths with a crisis. Without an answering crisis, a would-be leader remains just a promising custodian of potential. […] Before a leader can pull us out of despair, we have to fall into it. For this reason, a melancholy ambivalence can cling to even the most inspiring stories of leadership,” Rothman writes.

For a long time, leadership experts remained nostalgic for old-type leaders — heroic men who possessed certain personality traits such as courage, decisiveness, intelligence and attractiveness, and that made them intrinsically followable. Subsequently, a great deal of time and effort was spent thinking about how leadership qualities might be detected to identify leaders well in advance.

By the mid-twentieth century however, a new kind of model emerged — the ‘process-based’ leader. This model clearly has several advantages. First of all, it suggests that leadership is learnable by observing the process. Secondly, it is able to differentiate between the designated leader in the corner office and the actual ‘emergent’ leaders around whom, at particular moments, events come together. (Research shows that workplaces often function because of unrecognized emergent leaders, many of them women.) Most fundamentally, process leadership models acknowledge that ‘being a leader’ isn’t an identity but, rather, a set of actions. It’s not someone you are. It’s something you do.

But still today, we like our leaders to be charismatic heroes. “Last year, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s film Steve Jobs relied almost exclusively on the trait model of leadership: it suggested that Jobs succeeded because of his powerful personality,” Rothman writes. “Watching the film, though, you couldn’t figure out what Jobs actually did. By contrast, if you read a detailed, process-oriented account of Jobs’s career […], it’s clear that Jobs was a master of the leadership process. Time and time again, he gathered intelligence about the future of technology; surveyed the competition and refined his taste; set goals and assembled teams; tracked projects, intervening into even apparently trivial decisions; and followed through, considering the minute details of marketing and retail. Although Jobs had considerable charisma, his real edge was his thoughtful involvement in every step of an unusually expansive leadership process. In an almost quantitative sense, he simply led more than others did.”

“‘Being a leader’ isn’t an identity but, rather, a set of actions. It’s not someone you are. It’s something you do.”

So, which model should we follow when choosing a leader? Well, if you buy into the trait model, it’s relatively easy to choose a leader. You simply look for a ‘leadenly personality.’ But if you favor the process model, it’s much harder.

Somebody who gave this a lot of thought is Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda. In Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, he gave forty American Presidents a ‘filtration score’. For example: Gerald Ford had a high filtration score because het had spent twenty-four years in ‘filtering offices’, and had been selected as Vice-President in expectation that he would soon be President. George W. Bush on the other hand had a low score. He had only spent six years in a very limited governorship and depended on his family connections. When it came to performance, Mukunda found that heavily filtered Presidents clustered around the middle of the rankings, while unfiltered Presidents clustered near both the bottom and the top. His theory suggests that, when we select an unfiltered leader, we’re taking a huge risk. But when things are going badly enough, this is a risk well worth taking.

“If Mukunda is right, you should think about the context in which you find yourself when you choose a leader. The question isn’t whether a dark-horse candidate will make a good leader (who can know?) but whether times are bad enough to justify gambling on a dark-horse candidate. Some version of this idea may drive the behavior of outsider candidates. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don’t spend much time talking about their qualifications; instead, they tell us, energetically, that times are very, very bad,” Rothman writes.

Now, let’s return to that other important aspect of proces leadership — the idea that we can all learn to become leaders. This notion has grown into an entire industry of books, seminars, leadership gurus, and so on. But in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, argues that the billions spent on corporate-leadership seminars are a waste of time and money, because they fail to produce better leaders. In an interview with Dan Schawbel for Forbes, Pfeffer says:

“That ‘leadership success’ is easily and unambiguously defined and measured. The most frequent question I get is, ‘name a successful leader’ or ‘what can I do to be a more successful leader?’ These questions, as asked, are meaningless, because the answers depend on what we mean by success.One of the dilemmas in leadership is that the qualities and behaviors that make individuals successful in their careers — narcissism and self-aggrandizement, the ability to prevaricate with skill and without remorse, skill in acting and presenting oneself in ways that may not be how one is feeling at the time, among others — are qualities and behaviors that do not necessarily produce great group results or healthy workplaces. […] So the misconceptions about leadership come from the enormous discontinuities between what people are told they are ‘supposed to’ do and what both social science and everyday observation suggests are the behaviors of some of the most admired and successful leaders.”

When asked if anyone can be a leader, Pferrer answers by saying that leadership is a skill and like all skills can mastered with practice and coaching. One of the reasons why leadership training so often fails is “that leadership education insufficiently focuses on building the influence skills and acumen in managing organizational dynamics — organizational politics, if you will that are so essential to getting things done on the one hand and surviving and succeeding in workplaces on the other.”

“Leaders make the world more sensible, but never sensible enough.”

Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at the US Military Academy West Point, takes a somewhat different approach. She sees leadership as a subject for humanists rather than business-school types. Her leadership anthology includes artists and writers — from the usual martial authorities such as Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz, to an essay (Speaking in Tongues) by the English novelist Zadie Smith.

Rothman concludes his essay in The New Yorker by saying that because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too.

“Leaders make the world more sensible, but never sensible enough,” Rothman writes. “Should our leaders keep this in mind? Do we want them to lead with a sense of submerged irony, of wistful self-awareness? When we’re swept up in the romance of leadership, we admire leaders who radiate authenticity and authority; we respect and enjoy our ‘real’ leaders. At other times, though, we want leaders who see themselves objectively, who resist the pull of their own charisma, who doubt the story they’ve been rewarded for telling. ‘If a man who thinks he is a king is mad,’ Jacques Lacan wrote, ‘a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.’ A sense of perspective may be among the most critical leadership qualities. For better or worse, however, it’s the one we ask our leaders to hide.”

A bit more…

Brainpickings remembered Umberto Eco with an (earlier) article about Eco’s antilibrary — or how to become an antischolar in a culture that treats knowledge as ‘an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order.’ In it, Maria Papova cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb who uses Eco’s uncommon relationship with books and reading as a parable of the most fruitful relationship with knowledge (The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable):

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

Read the entire article here: https://goo.gl/Mtz9zg.


Far from being any single inventor’s grand stroke of genius, the modern computer is the result of work by many individuals with disparate motivations over decades. Using as its backdrop an exhibition that ran at the IBM Corporate Exhibit Center between 1971 and 1975, this classic 1972 short documentary by the legendary husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames explores how shifting economic pressures and small-scale breakthroughs drove the development of modern computing and the information age.

You can watch the 10-minute film on Aeon: https://goo.gl/iNlZHQ.

By the way, in the left margin just below the video, there’s this question: “As our technology grows ever more sophisticated, do the problems it creates become harder to solve?” Philosopher and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine Julian Baggini writes in response:

“Not necessarily. The best way to respond to greater complexity can be with greater simplicity. There is one good example of this, which I’ve called the Pollan Paradox. The more we learn about nutrition, the more complicated it turns out to be. This means that any attempt to micro-manage diets becomes futile. The best we can do is follow the seven-word advice of food writer Michael Pollan: Eat [proper] food, not too much, mainly plants. This is a great example of simplicity being the only way to deal with complexity. It could be that some of the solutions to the problems of technology are equally simple. In place of Pollan’s food rules, we might need similar technology rules. In seven words: Meet people, go outside, switch off often.”


On CityLab (The Atlantic) beautiful pictures of Eero Saarinen’s architecture taken by the Hungarian photographer Balthazar Korab. Saarinen’s masterful use of curves and light made it easy for Korab, an architect by training, to find the drama with his lens. Despite their European origins, the duo, who both lived in Michigan for much of their lives, expressed the optimism and power of post-World War II America in their work as well as anyone.

More here: http://goo.gl/1shDNH.

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” — Oscar Wilde



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought