After 16 years buried in the corporate zeitgeist, The Innovator's Dilemma by Clay Christensen was unearthed for public critique in a June 23rd New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Lepore wrote that, "Ever since The Innovator's Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences and disruption seminars." Unimpressed with the craze, she concludes that disruption is "not a law of nature... It makes a very poor prophet."
If I agree with Lepore's criticism of Christensen, it's not because of his cherry-picked case studies -- after all, she commits similar selection-bias in her counter-narrative -- but because she points out that, as is the case with so many crazes, innovation's popularity has degraded its meaning. It seems that innovation today is often confused with ideation, with the expectation that throwing smarter, younger ideas (and their associated interns) at an expensive problem will somehow make the costs of change disappear. This may be one part of innovation, but it is far from the entire process.
Over the past few months I've been applying formal business school lessons on disruptive innovation -- in addition to a few slick net-present value calculations -- as an Alcoa Fellow at Greenovate Boston, a community-based movement to reduce Boston's greenhouse gas emissions. My fellow MBA partner-in-crime and I have been tasked with increasing Boston's commercial recycling rate through an "innovative pilot program:" recycling co-ops. The kernel of this idea, which is new to the recycling world, is that small businesses can band together, combine waste streams and save money on their waste management contracts while saving the planet.
To start, we dutifully pounded the pavement: We spoke to cantankerous fish mongers and flighty boutique owners; we sweated through door-to-door tours of financial corridor lunch spots; we paraded through stakeholder offices, including the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, where we were politely alerted that a co-op arrangement would create illegal versions of otherwise highly regulated municipal solid waste transfer stations.
As the summer neared its end, we began to think through our final presentation on the program, and I saw that we were faced with a choice: We could leave -- as originally promised -- an optimistic toolkit with all the contacts we'd built, work-arounds we'd imagined and ground we'd covered. We could package it in a one-dimensional story of success that required just a few more intrepid interns to reach a conclusion. But, like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, we'd be recommending six impossible things before breakfast.
Or we could be honest: No matter how dogged and brilliant the next wave of interns, how clever and charming the leader, this project would not singlehandedly revolutionize commercial recycling in Boston. We did the math on our salaries, the salaries of future government employees and the projected expense of getting just one 10-business co-op off the ground; we compared that to the meager gains on maybe a few extra tons of cans and bottles kept out of the landfill. We also did some quick math on other, more standard means of increasing commercial recycling and presented our honest, evidence-based opinion: The first iteration of the co-op program didn't make financial sense.
This -- incremental progress through failure -- is what innovation looks like. What we learned in business school was not that we should take novel, cool ideas to the moon and back, no matter the cost, but that we should face ambiguous problems with creative solutions and then pressure test them quickly, honestly. We chose to let this idea fail fast rather than succeed slowly in an environment where return on investment isn't a driving force, especially since success would have come at great cost and disproportionately low environmental gains.
Through this process, we also, critically, learned a new direction for exploration. We realized that a regulatory approach or a strong city role, as opposed to a light touch, is needed to help make things work. Commercial recycling won't be disrupted solely by an app or a series of self-sustaining co-ops. Recycling is a big, infrastructure-heavy industry with major cost and behavioral barriers. The small roadblocks from this summer helped to illuminate larger opportunities, like collective bidding for neighborhood-level contracts administered by the city.
The fact is, innovation is iterative. Sometimes change requires interns with fresh perspective. Sometimes it requires people with long-term industry knowledge who understand the parameters of the box we need to think our way out of. Sometimes it requires both.
And sometimes, instead of taking novel solutions, we need old ones revamped and revitalized. Ironically, this is exactly what we learned in our "Innovator" class, but it doesn't echo the cries of boundless optimism from today's Bay Area start-ups.
Lepore might carp at the cool/different/do-whatever innovation complex that surfaced in the wake of Christensen's insight, but I think Christensen himself, along with my business school professors and our collaborators at Greenovate, would agree with what I found this summer: Sometimes innovation isn't about generating, inventing and promoting new ideas, it's about reducing, reusing and recycling them.