Daniel A Levinthal

Daniel A Levinthal
  • Reginald H. Jones Professor of Corporate Strategy
  • Professor of Management

Contact Information

  • office Address:

    3209 SH-DH
    3620 Locust Walk
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

Research Interests: industry evolution, organizational learning, technological competition

Links: CV, Google Scholar


Daniel Levinthal is the Reginald H. Jones Professor of Corporate Strategy at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Levinthal has published extensively on questions of organizational adaptation and industry evolution, particularly in the context of technological change with 70 articles and book chapters that have received over 20,000 citations. He is a Fellow of both the Strategic Management Society, the Academy of Management, and the Academy of International Business. In addition, he is a past winner of the Strategic Management Society’s Best Paper prize and has received the Distinguished Scholar from the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy, as well as the Outstanding Educator Award from the Business Policy Division of the Academy. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Strategy Science and has previously served as Editor-in-chief of Organization Science. He has received honorary doctorates from the London Business School, University of Southern Denmark, Tilburg University, and the University of Warwick and has held visiting professorships at the Harvard Business School (Bower Fellow), the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, University of Pisa (Philip Morris Visiting Professor), and the University of New South Wales (Michael Crouch Visiting Professor).

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  • Jaeho Choi and Daniel A Levinthal (2022), Wisdom in the wild: Generalization and adaptive dynamics, Organization Science.

    Abstract: Learning from experience is a central mechanism underlying organizational capabilities. However, in examining how organizations learn from past experiences, much of the literature has focused on situations in which actors are facing a repeated event. We direct attention to a relatively under-examined question: when an organization experiences a largely idiosyncratic series of events, at what level of granularity should these events, and the associated actions and outcomes, be encoded? How does generalizing from experience impact the wisdom of future choices and what are the boundary conditions, or factors that might mitigate the degree of desired generalization? To address these questions, we develop a computational model that incorporates how characteristics of opportunities (cf., acquisition candidates, new investments, product development) might be encoded so that experiential learning is possible even when the organization’s experience is a series of unique events. Our results highlight the power of learning through generalization in a world of novelty, as well as the features of the problem environment that reduce this “power.”

  • Daniel A Levinthal and Andrea Contigiani (2018), Situating the Construct of Lean Startup: Adjacent “Conversations” and Possible Future Directions, Industrial and Corporate Change.

  • Daniel A Levinthal (2017), Mendel in the C-Suite: Design and the evolution of strategies, Strategy Science, 2 (4), pp. 282-287.

    Abstract: A “Mendelian” executive is proposed as an image of strategy making that lies intermediate between the godlike powers of intentional design of rational choice approaches and a Darwinian process of random variation and market-based differential selection. The Mendelian executive is capable of intentional design efforts in order to explore possible adjacent strategic spaces. Furthermore, the argument developed here highlights the role of intentionality with respect to the selection and culling of strategic initiatives. The firm is viewed as operating an “artificial selection” environment in contrast to selection as the direct consequence of the outcome of competitive processes. Examining the nature of the processes generating these experimental variants and the bases of internal selection, and how these selection criteria may themselves change, is argued to be central to the formation of strategy in dynamic competitive environments.

  • Daniel A Levinthal (2017), Resource allocation and firm boundaries, Journal of Management, 43 (8), pp. 2580-2587.

    Abstract: In a modern economy, much of the allocation of financial and nonfinancial resources is mediated by organizations. This essay points to three general features of this mediating role of organizations in the resource allocation process. One line of argument relates to the distinct opportunities and opportunity costs that an organization faces. The set of investment opportunities for organizations differs as a result of their privileged access to different investment opportunities. The second line of argument considers the impact of differential beliefs and perspectives on the resource allocation process. The diversity of independent budgetary entities, both internal to and external to the organization, is argued to importantly influence the heterogeneity of the bases of selection among alternative investment opportunities. Lastly, this mediation of resource allocation by the firm plays a particularly important role with respect to the allocation of resources over time on a given initiative. Organizations do not simply buffer initiatives from selection but potentially provide different bases for interim selection processes.

  • Victor Bennett and Daniel A Levinthal (2017), Firm lifecycles: Linking employee incentives and firm growth dynamics, Strategic Management Journal, 38 (10), pp. 2005-2018.

    Abstract: While the economic advantages of scale are well understood, implications of the rate of firm growth are arguably less appreciated. Since firms' growth rate influences employees' promotion opportunities, the growth rate can have significant implications for the incentives employees face. Rapid growth, by creating more promotion opportunities, motivates employees to engage in extra-role behaviors that might result in promotion should an opportunity arise. Building on this argument, we develop a formal model linking the design of firms' incentive structure to their rate of growth. The associated dynamics lead to three distinct epochs of firms' lifecycle: rapid growth and high-powered incentives driven by frequent promotion opportunities; moderate growth with infrequent promotion opportunities, but large salary increases contingent on promotion; and finally, stagnant firms with low-powered incentives.

  • Thorbjorn Knudsen, Daniel A Levinthal, Sidney G Winter (2017), Systematic differences and random rates: Reconciling Gibrat’s Law with firm differences, Strategy Science, 2 (2), pp. 111-120.

    Abstract: A fundamental premise of the strategy field is the existence of persistent firm-level differences in resources and capabilities. This property of heterogeneity should express itself in a variety of empirical “signatures,” such as firm performance and arguably systematic and persistent differences in firm-level growth rates, with low cost firms outpacing high cost firms. While this property of performance differences is a robust regularity, the empirical evidence on firm growth and Gibrat’s law does not support the later conjecture. Gibrat’s law, or the “law of proportionate effect,” states that, across a population of firms and over time, firm growth at any point is, on average, proportionate to size of the firm. We develop a theoretical argument that provides a reconciliation of this apparent paradox. The model implies that in early stages of an industry history. firm growth may have a systematic component, but for much of an industry’s and firm’s history should have a random pattern consistent with the Gibrat property. The intuition is as follows. In a Cournot equilibrium, firms of better “type” (i.e., lower cost) realize a larger market share, but act with some restraint on their choice of quantity in the face of a downward sloping demand curve and recognition of their impact on the market price. If firms are subject to random firm-specific shocks, then in this equilibrium setting a population of such firms would generate a pattern of growth consistent with Gibrat’s law. However, if broader evolutionary dynamics of firm entry, and the subsequent consolidation of market share and industry shake-out is considered, then during early epochs of industry evolution, one would tend to observe systematic differences in growth rates associated with firm’s competitive fitness. Thus, it is only in these settings far from industry equilibrium that we should see systematic deviations from Gibrat’s law.

  • Felipe Csaszar and Daniel A Levinthal (2016), Mental representation and the discovery of new strategies, Strategic Management Journal, 37, pp. 2013-2049.

    Abstract: Managers' mental representations affect the perceived payoffs and alternatives that managers consider. Thus, mental representations affect how managers search for profitable strategies as well as the quality of strategies they discover. To study how mental representation and search interact, we formally model the dual search over possible representations and over policy choices of a strategy “landscape.” We analyze when it is preferable to emphasize searching for the best policies rather than the best mental representation, and vice versa. We show that, in the long run, a balance between the two search modes not only results in better expected performance, but also reduces the variation in performance. Additionally, the article describes conditions under which increased accuracy of mental representations can actually worsen firm performance.

  • Daniel A Levinthal and Alessandro Marino (2015), Three facets of organizational adaptation: Selection, variety, and plasticity, Organization Science, 26 (3), pp. 743-755.

    Abstract: When considering the adaptive dynamics of organizations, it is important to account for the full set of adaptive mechanisms, including not only the possibility of learning and adaptation of a given behavior but also the internal selection over some population of routines and behaviors. In developing such a conceptual framework, it is necessary to distinguish between the underlying stable roots of behavior and the possibly adaptive expression of those underlying templates. Selection occurs over expressed behavior. As a result, plasticity, the capacity to adapt behavior, poses a trade-off as it offers the possibility of adaptive learning but at the same time mitigates the effectiveness of selection processes to identify more or less superior underlying roots of behavior. In addition, plasticity may mitigate the reliability with which practices are enacted. These issues are explored in the context of a computational model, which examines the interrelationship among processes of variation, selection, and plasticity.

  • Daniel A Levinthal and Maciej Workiewicz (Working), Nearly decomposable systems and organizational structure: The adaptive properties of the multi-authority form.

  • Daniel A Levinthal and Claus Rerup (Working), Grey zones and the variegated quality of success and failure: Deconstructing the interpretation of experience in the process of organizational learning.


All Courses

  • MGMT6110 - Managing Est Enterprise

    This course is about managing large enterprises that face the strategic challenge of being the incumbent in the market and the organizational challenge of needing to balance the forces of inertia and change. The firms of interest in this course tend to operate in a wide range of markets and segments, frequently on a global basis, and need to constantly deploy their resources to fend off challenges from new entrants and technologies that threaten their established positions. The class is organized around three distinct but related topics that managers of established firms must consider: strategy, human and social capital, and global strategy.

  • MGMT7980 - Managing and Motivating

    People are the most valuable asset of any business, but they are also the most unpredictable, and the most difficult, asset to manage. And although managing people well is critical to the health of any organization, most managers don't get the training they need to make good management decisions. Now, award-winning authors and renowned management Professors Mike Useem and Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School have designed this course to introduce you to the key elements of managing people. Based on their popular course at Wharton, this course will teach you how to motivate individual performance and design reward systems, how to design jobs and organize work for high performance, how to make good and timely management decisions, and how to design and change the your organization's architecture. By the end of this course, you'll have developed the skills you need to start motivating, organizing, and rewarding people in your organization so that you can thrive as a business and as a social organization. This course can also only be applied towards unrestricted electives at the undergraduate level.

  • MGMT9000 - Sem Strat Mgmt

    This course examines some of the central questions in management with economic approaches as a starting point, but with an eye to links to behavioral perspectives on these same questions. Economics concerns itself with goal directed behavior of individuals interacting in a competitive context. We adopt that general orientation but recognize that goal directed action need not take the form of maximizing behavior, particularly for organizations comprised of individuals with possibly divergent interests and distinct sub-goals. Further, we treat competitive processes as playing out over meaningful periods of calendar time and, in general, not equilibrating instantaneously. A central property of firms, as with any organization, is the interdependent nature of activity within them. Thus, understanding firms as "systems" is quite important, a perspective which has important implications for understanding processes of organizational adaptation. Among the sorts of questions we explore are the following: What underlies a firm's capabilities? How does individual knowledge aggregate to form collective capabilities? What do these perspectives on firms say about the scope of a firm's activities, both horizontally (diversification) and vertically (buy-supply relationships)? As a "foundations" course, readings will cover key conceptual foundations, but also provide an arc to current work --- an "arc" that will be developed more fully in our in-class discussions.

Awards and Honors

  • Fellow Academy of International Business, 2019
  • Honorary Doctorate, London Business School, 2019
  • Honorary Doctorate, Warwick University, 2017
  • Irwin Award as Distinguished Educator, Business Policy Division of the Academy of Management, 2015
  • Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies, HKUST, 2015
  • Honorary Doctorate, Tilburg University, 2014
  • Fellow of the Strategic Management Society, 2011
  • Fellow of the Academy of Management, 2010
  • Distinguished Scholar Award, Organizational and Management Theory, Academy of Management, 2010
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Southern Denmark, 2010

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