Exploring Fit and Misfit with Multiple Contingencies

By Gresov, Christopher | Administrative Science Quarterly, September 1989 | Go to article overview

Exploring Fit and Misfit with Multiple Contingencies


Gresov, Christopher, Administrative Science Quarterly


Exploring Fit and Misfit with Multiple Contingencies

This paper proposes a multiple-contingencies theory that simultaneously examines the effects of task and dependence on unit design and efficiency. The theory explores and predicts the conditions under which work-unit designs fail to fit their contexts. Findings from studies of one contingency factor (e.g., uncertainty or dependence) have shown that poor performance by units is related to a lack of fit with theoretically prescribed patterns of design, but because such studies do not do justice to the complexities of design, it is difficult to predict misfit. The multiple-contingency approach proposed here specifically focuses on issues such as misfit, conflicting contingencies, and equifinality. The model is tested, using data from 529 work units in 60 employment-security offices. A key finding is that units facing conflicting contingencies are more prone to design misfit and lower performance.(*) Recent publications attest to a continuing interest among scholars in documenting fit relationships between features of context and dimensions of structure or design in organizational work units (Schoonhoven, 1981; Argote, 1982; Fry and Slocum, 1984; Alexander and Randolph, 1985; Drazin and Van de Ven, 1985; Van de Ven and Drazin, 1985). The concern has generally been to show that the degree of fit (or misfit) between context and design is related to the level of efficiency or effectiveness attained. The bulk of this research has examined one feature of context at a time, usually the uncertainty stemming from unit tasks (e.g., Van de Ven and Delbecq, 1974; Van de Ven and Ferry, 1980; Drazin and Van de Ven, 1985), though some studies have also investigated unit dependence as a contingency factor (e.g., Tushman, 1979; Van de Ven and Ferry, 1980; Ito and Peterson, 1986). Results indicate that lower performance is often related to a lack of fit between unit context and design, although no research has addressed the question of why design misfits occur or under what conditions a lack of fit is likely. Focusing on a single dimension of context, however, fails to capture the complexities of the design process. First, it fails to take account of the fact that structures in organizations evolve in response to a diverse set of requirements. Second, designing to several contingencies at once can involve trade-offs that prohibit a fit to all of them (Child, 1975; Gerwin, 1979). Without exploring problematic situations in which design trade-offs play a role, misfit can only be attributed to what Thompson (1967) might have called departures from norms of rationality. This paper proposes a multiple-contingencies theory of work-unit design and performance. This model stems from the recognition that work units are organized to respond not simply to the content of their workflows (tasks) or to their position within workflows (horizontal dependence) but to these two contingencies in combination. Unit design thus arises both from internal and external forces, and unit performance should therefore be associated with the fit or misfit of design with both of these contextual features. The strength of a multiple-contingencies approach lies in its ability to address several questions that go unanswered using simpler approaches. First, does the interaction of task and dependence create situations that shape design in unexpected ways? Second, do these situations have a direct impact on unit performance or influence design in a way that affects performance? Third, is the misfit or design deviation observed in research findings on task or dependence related in some way to these situations, a relation that goes undetected because the other contingency is not considered? Finally, are there situations in which observing misfit is impossible because no optimal design, or fit, can be achieved? The spirit of this approach is implicit in previous theoretical formulations (e.g., Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967; Thompson, 1967; Galbraith, 1977; Tushman and Nadler, 1978; Tushman, 1979; Van de Ven and Ferry, 1980), many of which included multiple features of context, but the potential of these frameworks has not been realized in empirical research because of the preference for testing single-contingency models. …

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