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What Separates the Ideas that Endure from Those That Fade?

To explain why a person, a product, or an idea is a success, says Prof. Balázs Kovács, you need to compare it to those that don’t catch on. For a study of the evolution of management concepts, he and his co-author did just that, by tracking keywords in 90 years of Harvard Business Review articles. Their conclusion: concepts get an initial boost from being similar to popular ideas, but need to distinguish themselves to last.

A vintage photo of a horse race

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Success is an alluring subject. People want to know how the rich got rich, how the famous got famous, how a world-changing product was born. But those success stories are generally told without considering the failures that happen in parallel, says Balázs Kovács, associate professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM.

“The thing is, 99.9% of bands or athletes or businesses never become the Apple or Microsoft or Amazon of their domain,” he says. Making such a comparison, however, is difficult, as failure—that key element—rarely leave a public record.

The same issue complicates studying the history of ideas, says Kovács, who recently set out, with Jerker Denrell of Warwick Business School, to understand the rise and fall of the concepts that form the shared language of business leaders and both shape and reflect their strategy.

Kovács and Denrell found a novel way to track both the ideas with staying power and those that flared briefly and faded—and the difference between them. They examined every article keyword used in the Harvard Business Review between its founding, in 1922, and 2010. (HBR, they say “provides a mirror of what is current in the management world.”) These keywords provided a proxy for the rise and fall of a sweeping range of business concepts, management fads, and preoccupations, from “business cycles” and “Japan” to “Quality Circles” and “innovation management.” By mapping the frequency and persistence of keywords, they traced how ideas emerge, catch on, and go out of fashion.

The keyword “Japan,” for instance, spiked in popularity in the 1980s—when Japanese management methods and investment abroad drew admiration and fear in the U.S.—then declined to its previous baseline. “Leadership” and “strategic planning,” on the other hand, have been gaining popularity continuously since the 1950s.

Kovács and Denrell then connected every concept, whether popular or not, to three different dimensions. First, how closely are the elements that constitute the concept related to one another? A management concept that draws on distantly related ideas—like a movie that combines motifs from western, horror, and romance—would rank as composed of dissimilar elements. Second, how closely is the concept affiliated with other popular concepts? And third, how similar is the concept to other popular concepts?

“Affiliation means that two keywords appear together on the same paper,” Kovács says. The article he wrote with Denrell, for example, is headed by the keywords “diffusion” and “ecology,” which means that they are affiliated. “If some other paper has the keyword ‘ecology’ along with the keyword ‘salaries,’ then we would define ‘diffusion’ and ‘salaries,’ through this two-step co-occurrence, as similar.”

The results, published in Strategy Science, reveal that popular concepts tend to be affiliated with and similar to other popular concepts; that is, popular ideas often ride the coattails of other popular ideas. They also tend to be composed of like elements. “If a concept is new or unknown or both, then we find it benefits by appearing together with other famous concepts, and by covering similar ground,” Kovács says. “Specifically, ideas that do this appear more frequently in our data year over year.”

“If you are an unpopular person or product or firm, then it pays to affiliate yourself with something similar and famous. But when you reach a certain level of popularity this affiliation can detract from your success. You should go your own way.”

An important twist emerged in the results, though. As a concept gains in popularity, it starts to compete with other popular concepts: where once an idea benefited from this association, it eventually starts to suffer. This negative effect only occurs with concepts that are extremely popular, but the overall picture clarifies an intuitive notion. If it helps to attach yourself to well-known ideas when starting out, you must be sure to separate yourself at a certain point, as mentors and models eventually become competitors.

These results could hold important lessons for strategic positioning. “If you are an unpopular person or product or firm—and I don’t mean that pejoratively—then it pays to affiliate yourself with something similar and famous,” Kovács says. “But when you reach a certain level of popularity this affiliation can detract from your success. You should go your own way.”

Department: Research