By Clay Chandler

Clay is an author, editor and fellow at Hult International Business School where he follows technology, economics and global business. He is a former Asia editor at McKinsey & Company, and has held senior editorial roles at Fortune, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @claychandler

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This book, first published in 1997, is practically holy scripture for the tech industry.

Any aspiring entrepreneur should be familiar with its arguments—or at least know how to toss around some of its key jargon, especially the phrase “disruptive innovation.” If you can’t prove your new venture is truly “disruptive,” good luck getting any respectable venture capital to fund it.

At the center of Christensen’s argument is paradox: even great companies that do everything right will, in the end, forfeit market leadership. Why? Because the very things that make those businesses successful in the first place eventually will blind them to innovation, thus hastening their demise. Key to Christensen’s theory is the notion that large firms have a natural tendency to try to move steadily upmarket in an effort to keep their existing customers happy. In so doing, they will overlook products of value to potential customers, or products that might be of value in the future to their existing customers. Incumbents, Christensen argues, have a built-in proclivity to ignore opportunities that have the potential to transform their entire industry.

“Disruptive innovation,” then, is the process by which successful incumbents get clobbered by small upstarts who invent products that are cheaper and often in the eyes of the incumbents inferior. According to Christensen, disruption typically starts at the bottom of the market, “allowing a whole new population of consumers to access a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”

Christensen’s ideas have been hugely influential—and made him a tidy fortune. He’s used his theory to explain how PCs disrupted mainframe computers, mini-mills disrupted large steel plants and mobile phones disrupted fixed-line phone services. In recent years, he has extended his theory to non-tech areas like health care and higher education. His explanations certainly seem to make sense of the way in which, for example, Amazon has roiled retailing, online content providers have decimated the print publishing industry, and Uber has caused consternation among traditional taxi drivers.

Ironically, Christensen himself is now the lumbering incumbent in the “innovation” space. Lately his intellectual products have come under attack from irreverent upstarts, most notably Harvard historian Jill Lepore who argued in a widely debated New Yorker essay that Christensen cherry-picked his cases, twisted his data and employed circular reasoning. If it is inevitable that incumbents sow the seeds of their own disruption, she asks, why is there so much continuity in the economy over time, even in the industries Christensen claims to examine? “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,” she wrote. “Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. [In Christensen’s theory,] none of these conditions have been met.”

Christensen’s (not entirely satisfying) response to Lepore’s critique is here. University of Michigan economist Miles Kimball has a fuller defense here. It will be interesting to see whether the great disruption theorist can avoid being disrupted and escape his own dilemma.

The Innovators Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business Review Press), 1997.