Innovation: Mapping the winds of creative destruction

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Citation: William J. Abernathy, Kim B. Clark (1985) Innovation: Mapping the winds of creative destruction. Research Policy (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90021-6
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90021-6
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90021-6
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Innovation: Mapping the winds of creative destruction
Tagged: Business (RSS) innovation (RSS), creativity (RSS), creative destruction (RSS)


With a title referencing Schumpeter's famous work on "creative destruction", Abernathy and Clark set out to connect firm failures to different types of innovation. They frame their argument in terms of transilence or "the capacity of an innovation to influence the established systems of production and marketing."

Methodologically, the paper uses data collected on a series of important innovation in the automobile industry from the first half of the twentieth century. Detailed information about these innovations are collected and then the innovations are coded along two different axes into a 2x2 matrix which include (1) an indicator of whether an innovation with either take advantage of existing customer and market linkages or disrupt them and (2) whether they will conserve or disrupt existing competences.

Niche Creation (1:Y,2:N) : Architectural (1:Y,2:Y)
Regular (1:N,2:N) : Revolutionary (1:N,2:Y)

The paper builds on the work on Thomas Kuhn's Structure of scientific revolutions to argue that regular innovation plays an important role but can lead to either revolutionary or architectural changes through processes similar to those described by Kuhn.

They also connect the work to the literature on dominant designs (Utterback and Abernathy, 1975) and argue that regular innovation is possible with the creation of a dominant design but also tends to "lock it in" in an important sense. Architectural innovation is associated with the creation of a new dominant design and, the authors imply, because it is competence destroying, also tends to be associated with firm failures.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Abernathy and Clark (1985) have been cited nearly 1,500 times and are a central text in the contemporary literature on innovation and on the process of firm adaption and failure in particular. The paper really sets the stage (even providing the term) for the even more influential Henderson and Clark ((1990). The idea that innovation can destroy competence of various kinds remains a central observation important to a wide variety of industry-level studies of innovation.