Barely into 2020 and news came that probably the most influential business thinker of the last 20 years had passed away. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who died on 23 January at the age of 67, entered the business world and then popular culture with his concept of ‘disruptive innovation’, which was first outlined in 1995. The model came to wider prominence in the 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma and was to grow in stature along with the rise of the US buccaneering technology giants through the 2000s.
As a study of how small upstarts can upend and ultimately crush huge, well-run industry leaders, the book’s ideas spoke to a globalising world economy in which technology and new operating models made it easier for apparently-unrelated industries to collide.
The most compelling aspect to Christensen’s theories was not that industry leaders could fail – that had been repeatedly demonstrated – it was his contention that the excellence and responsiveness to core customers that made them successful was precisely what made corporate giants struggle to adapt to ‘disruptive’ threats. These leaders did not fail despite being great at what they did, they failed because of it. Under this model, market leaders initially dismissed less sophisticated products as agile challengers built a market with early-adopting customers attracted by convenience and low costs over quality. From here, they could rapidly move up the value chain.
Christensen’s work is central to this column because there is no doubt his work made him the single most influential thinker for the commercial legal profession through the 2010s, even when law firm leaders were not aware they were applying his notions.
It is easy to see how the vision of lumbering profit-focused leaders being undone by scrappy entrants fired the rhetoric of New Law outfits; the parallels in Christensen’s work with law often seemed striking, with his descriptions of ultimately-doomed market leaders looking eerily similar to the driven-but-complacent culture of elite law firms.
And yet the application of Christensen’s well-researched ideas was never entirely satisfying in the law. For one, many of his original models concentrated on the manufacture and sale of scalable products, not services, which are generally more resistant to wrenching shifts.
And there are many specifics of the legal market – not least that it involves non-discretionary spending to manage liability imposed by law and lawyers spending other people’s money on other lawyers – with no common ground in his work.
Christensen’s work made him the single most influential thinker for the commercial legal profession through the 2010s.
Indeed, Christensen himself grew increasingly frustrated with the slapdash application of what was a narrowly-constructed model to almost any form of innovation. The disruption bandwagon frequently became a marketing tool to make the mundane more significant.
And what is most striking about the application of such notions of upheaval in law was how little ‘disruption’ occurred through the decade. Even with the helping hand of Legal Services Act liberalisation, hundreds of new alternative business structures and the return of the Big Four to the fray, the industry ended the 2010s strikingly similar to how it began.
None of which should diminish this body of work. In the age of the throwaway ‘thought leader’ Christensen was a theorist of rigour and substance who regarded the development of serious ideas as relying on ongoing debate, trial and application. But for the legal profession, the real question now should be: what precisely is it in the industry that makes it so stubbornly resistant to change? And is that here to stay?