Disrupting the incumbents

Disrupting Class wisely states that an incumbent enterprise cannot disrupt itself. This is a similar basic premise of family system therapy: "a system cannot change its own rules". We stand on the ground that is going to shift and cannot move the ground from under our feet. This also resembles the pattern of spouses who cannot leave their abusive marriage on the premise that living alone would be far worse.

Christensen, Horn and Johnson give us some reasons why incumbents see the change coming but cannot formulate a disruptive innovation:
In the years when the companies must commit to the innovation, disruptions are unattractive to the leaders because their best customers cannot use them, and they promise lower profit margins. Therefore, investment dollars are always more likely to go toward next-generation sustaining innovations instead of disruptive ones. (p.50)
As I read this book, I realized that the authors did disrupt their profit margins either. A college professor, consultant to academia and a former college president maintained their own incumbent enterprise. While forecasting disruptive changes in P-12 programs, profitable college degree requirements, college prep classes and advance placement (AP) courses remained intact while they explored two significant disruptions to elementary and high school programs. [Update 10/26/08 The authors have a companion blog for the book where they are exploring disruptions to higher ed]

I concur with both disruptive innovations the book describes. The authors foresee a next-generation of online educational offerings. Where there currently is available a phenomenal variety and abundance of WHAT to learn, they expect we'll soon see a wave of alternatives in HOW to learn what is available. There will be more sensitivity to variations in how students learn, how much they already know, how fast they want to proceed and how they respond to help from others. The online access to tutors, learning buddies, experiential processes and group projects will free students from the limitations of classroom teachers corralling a large number of students.

The authors also consider their change model to be disruptive to conventional change management efforts. When incumbents have realized the implications on their own organization of this set of explanations, they saw how to separate the innovation from their current momentum. They stop expecting the employees to disrupt themselves. They perceived how the current incentives, goals, ambitions and responsiveness could not accommodate such a sea change. Rather than set up internal sabotage of the innovation, the leadership launched it under a separate umbrella.

I have in mind a far more disruptive innovation that will impact college institutions. Tomorrow I'll explore that possibility here.


  1. So glad you posted this. Higher education actually has had far more disruptions hitting it than has K-12. I've been writing about many of them on our blog at or at the Innosight Institute Web site, In addition, Christensen and I have also published a piece about the disruption of the Harvard Business School in BizEd magazine. I think you would find it interesting.

  2. Michael: Thanks for the link to your blog. I've subscribed to it and am delighted you're exploring disruptions to higher ed. I'll follow the other links soon.

    The disruptions I have in mind could eventually replace research, teaching and online university programs. I'm seeing the possibility of a new labor model for school work that disrupts more than price and prestige variables that differentiate current degree programs. I'll be writing much more about that here next week.