Meet Taco Bell's 'Resident Disruptor'

As academics debate the value of Clayton Christensen's "theory of disruption," this is how Taco Bell's Jeff Jenkins thinks about disruption. 

This week, Harvard historian Jill Lepore published a scathing critique of one of Silicon Valley's sacred texts, Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation.

The theory was first elucidated at book length in Christensen's 1997 work, The Innovator’s DilemmaThe gist is that smaller, nimbler disrupters can take out established firms by offering less capable products that don't seem like they serve the core customer base well. 

Christensen's theory was based on nine case studies, and it is their factual basis that Lepore goes after. She argues that they don't really hold up. Christensen, in an angry interview with Businessweek, responded that the theory itself has developed over the last 17 years, and wonders why Lepore didn't go beyond just the one book. He certainly feels he's been wronged, and it was interesting to discover that Lepore never spoke to the man behind the theory.

But more than this particular spat, I'm interested in how the concept of disruption—this techno-business phenomenon—has bled out into all kinds of businesses, even (especially?) Taco Bell. 

I first realized this reading Austin Carr's perplexing and hilarious feature on the creation of the Doritos Locos taco. The shock that Taco Bell's product people at least perform for Carr is stunning in its ludicrousness. 

[O]ne idea, from Doritos-maker Frito-Lay, stuck out: a Doritos-based taco shell pocketed with Taco Bell ingredients. "It was basically an image [of this taco] on a piece of paper, with a written description. I don't know what technology they use. We didn't even taste it; it was just more of, 'Hey, this is what it could look like,'" Perdue says. "It was like, 'Holy crap!' Nobody had ever done this before: turning a Dorito into a taco shell. It was just mind-blowing at the idea stage." Steve Gomez, Taco Bell's food innovation expert, recalls seeing the first mock-up. "Every day I see a lot of concepts--sketches on paper, written words about products--and my job is to turn those products into reality," he says. "But in all my years as a product developer, I've never seen a concept like this. The product didn't even exist yet, and already people knew this idea was going to be huge."

Holy crap! Had people who work at Taco Bell never thought of creating a taco shell out of Doritos? (They need to move their innovation headquarters to Colorado, obviously.)

But what's really absurd about this is how precisely they've aped the language that technical companies use to describe what they've done. They are discussing, in essence, a concept taco. There are mock-ups. For an ingestible food item!

And yet, the Doritos Locos taco is a success. The food innovation team was correct. Taco Bell remained undisrupted. Really, one could argue, Taco Bell has been the disruptor. The business-boosting success of the pretzel burger at Wendy's seems like a phenomenon that only could have happened in a post-Doritos Locos world. 

Which brings me to Jeff Jenkins, Taco Bell's "resident disruptor." He is a genuinely nice guy, it would appear, and a force of disruption within the company. He's trying to disrupt Taco Bell before someone outside the company can. He's like a white-hat taco hacker. 

His college, the University of Virginia, interviewed him for a series they do on alumni, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about about he saw his job and business. The idea of disruption—of the rapid rise of a new competitor, who eats your lunch (heh)—is so deeply ingrained in this generation of businesspeople. 

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