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Organizations as Evolutionary Systems. Daniel Levinthal Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Sustained Competitive Advantage. Owning just survivors would have yielded a 20% lower return than owning the S&P. 74 firms. Only 12 outperformed S&P 500. 1997. S&P 500 in 1957.

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organizations as evolutionary systems

Organizations as Evolutionary Systems

Daniel Levinthal

Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

sustained competitive advantage
Sustained Competitive Advantage

Owning just survivors would have yielded a 20%

lower return than owning the S&P

74 firms

Only 12 outperformed

S&P 500


S&P 500 in 1957

Foster and Kaplan (2001)

challenge for strategic management
Challenge for Strategic Management
  • What is the problem? What are our expectations?
    • Immortality
    • Sustained competitive advantage








The ability to learn faster than your

competitors may be the only

sustainable competitive advantage

Ray State (CEO Analog Devices)

Arie De Geus (Head of Strategic Planning Royal Dutch Shell)

Peter Senge (author of the 5th Discipline)

OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, and act)

John Boyd (USAF Strategist)

“It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent , but the one that is most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

exploration exploitation
Exploration - Exploitation
  • Fundamental tension for evolving entity
    • Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems (Holland, 1975)
    • Need to survive in the present and adapt in ways that enhance survival in the future
  • Why the need for adaptation for the future?
    • Opportunity to improve via search over complex problem/opportunity space
    • Changes in the problem/competitive context itself
nested levels of selection
Nested Levels of Selection



Selection criteria

Selection pressure

Org A

Org B

nested levels of selection1
Nested Levels of Selection



Selection criteria

Selection pressure

Org A

Org B

a1 a2 a3 a4 a5

Selection of projects and routines

within the organization

three challenges to the problem of organizational evolution
Three Challenges to the Problem of Organizational Evolution
  • Problem of interim selection
  • Problem of selection criteria
    • Diversity
  • From “Dynamic Capabilities” to Dynamic Organizations
genotype versus phenotype
Genotype versus Phenotype
  • Fixed genetic structure need not imply fixed form
    • Adaptation at the individual level
    • Developmental expression of genotype
unpacking construct of routine based action levinthal and marino 2012
Unpacking Construct of Routine-based Action(Levinthal and Marino, 2012)
  • Gene
    • Carrier of inheritable traits across time
  • Phenotype
    • Expression of the “form”
    • Some degree of loose coupling to gene
      • Plasticity
    • Unique re-enactment of “routine” based behavior
      • Feldman (2000), Birnholtz, Cohen, & Hoch (2007), Cohen, Levinthal, and Warglien (2012)
    • Selection operates directly on phenotype (and only indirectly on the gene)
      • Myopia of selection (Levinthal and Posen, 2007)

Explicitly myopic







Market share



Patents & new


Forward-looking but conditional

on current outcomes




Unfolding of alternative

search strategies


What does it mean to be a good “type”?

  • High profits conditional on survival
    • Implicit criteria of business press accounts
  • Higher probability of survival
    • Implicit criteria of population ecologists
  • Highest average (across a particular strategy) for all organizations
    • Implicit criteria for learning theorists
intermediate selection levinthal and posen 2007 myopia of selection asq
Intermediate SelectionLevinthal and Posen (2007) “Myopia of Selection”, ASQ
  • When is this most critical?
    • Early in an organization’s life
      • Most vulnerable to selection forces
      • Most plastic with respect to developmental processes
  • Importance of considering in detail both the nature of developmental paths and the nature of selection
    • Search strategies, resource endowments & temporary buffering from selection
  • Selectability: Informativeness of current fitness for future fitness
challenge of intermediate selection valuation of stage setting moves
Challenge of Intermediate Selection: Valuation of Stage-Setting Moves
  • Learning in the absence of [immediate] feedback (Fang, Denrell, and Levinthal, 2004, Fang and Levinthal, 2009)
    • Samuels (1958): machine learning for checkers
      • Reward ‘stage-setting’ moves as opposed to full paths or ultimate outcomes
    • Need for mental models for evaluation of intermediate states
    • Learning in labyrinths versus t-mazes
      • Emergence of routines as a mechanism to address inter-temporal dependencies
real options
Real Options
  • Initial “stage-setting” investments may give the firm privileged access to subsequent follow-on investments
    • New product development
    • Initial plant in an emerging market
    • Rights to distribute a new movie

Realization of


Stage 2




intermediate selection real options
Intermediate Selection & Real Options
  • Real options as panacea for innovation strategy in an uncertain world
  • Problems of selection and real options

(Adner and Levinthal, AMR 2004)

    • Challenge of updating and evaluation
    • Impossibility of proving failure
    • Costs of imposing sufficient constraint to make innovative efforts conform to a real option
challenges of experimentation problems of variety
Variety of ideas & initiatives

“let a thousand flowers bloom” Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Challenge of sustaining hetereogentiy of selection criteria

Organizations have sufficient resources to make multiple bets but struggle to act with multiple minds

Does size matter? (Posen, Martignoni, Levinthal, 2012)

Iron law of hierarchy (Michels, 1911)

Challenges of Experimentation: Problems of Variety
internal ecology levinthal and marino 2012
Internal Ecology(Levinthal and Marino, 2012)
  • Organizational adaptation as aggregate property
    • Plasticity of individual routines may or may not be adaptive for the aggregate entity
      • Flexibility
      • Reliability
      • Selectability
    • Degree/intensity of internal selection forces
  • Plasticity


Dynamic capabilities

grand synthesis link intelligent design and emergence
Grand Synthesis: Link Intelligent Design and Emergence
  • Engineering of evolutionary processes
    • Balancing exploration and exploitation
      • Holland (1976) and March (1991)
    • Nested levels of selection
      • Natural and artificial selection environments
      • Within group versus across group selection
  • Choice processes in evolutionary theories
    • Proteins versus people climbing fitness landscapes
      • Cognition: Gavetti and Levinthal (2000)
      • Social/population learning processes: Bandura (1977), Miner and Haunschild (1995)
    • Incentives and self-interest
      • Landscape design: Levinthal and Warglien (1999)
return to darwin mendel
Return to Darwin & Mendel
  • Our thinking about growth and decay is dominated by the image of a single lifespan, animal or vegetable. Seedling, full flower and death. “The flower that once has bloomed forever dies.” But for an ever-renewing society the appropriate image is a total garden, a balanced aquarium or other ecological system. Some things are being born, other things are flourishing, still other things are dying --- but the system lives on John Gardner (1972)
    • Silicon Valley
    • Internal ecology of organizations