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Contingency Theory retains a central place in organization and management research, but the concept organizational fit is treated generally in a relatively static and unidimensional manner, a manner that is incommensurate with the dynamic and often unpredictable, disruptive, multicontingency nature of organizational contexts today. Organizations address multiple, shifting contingency factors simultaneously, and as equilibria are punctuated with increasing frequency, one or more factors can be expected to change constantly. Seeking constantly to establish, re-establish and maintain "good" static fit may prove to represent an inferior strategy. Yet this represents a centerpiece of Contingency Theory as we know it. The problem is that the concept static fit is becoming anachronistic, and both conceptual and methodological tools for assessing and predicting dynamic fit with changing organizations and multicontingency contexts remain largely absent. In this article, we work to extend Contingency Theory through conceptualization of dynamic organizational fit , articulating an inherently dynamic relationship between multicontingency fit and organizational performance. We begin with promising contingency conceptualizations in Organization and Management Theory, and then draw from Dynamics to inform both conceptualization and operationalizati on of dynamic fit in terms of longitudinal, multidimensional trajectories. We illustrate the ensuing conceptual integration in a punctuated equilibrium context, and elucidate important interrelationships between static and dynamic organizational fit. This moves us considerably beyond fit as a static concept and unidimensional construct, and offers insight into operationalization via two, new, inherently dynamic constructs . A set of evocative research propositions emerges, and we guide continued research along the lines of this investigation.
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CONCEPTUALIZING DYNAMIC ORGANIZATIONAL FIT IN
MULTICONTINGENCY CONTEXTS1

MARK E. NISSEN
TARA A. LEWELING
Naval Postgraduate School
Information Sciences Department
589 Dyer Road, Room 200A
Monterey, CA 93943-5000
Tel: (831) 656-3570
Fax: (831) 656-3679
Email: MNissen@nps.edu



1 In: Proceedings Academy of Management Conference, Anaheim, CA (August 2008).

CONCEPTUALIZING DYNAMIC ORGANIZATIONAL FIT IN
MULTICONTINGENCY CONTEXTS


ABSTRACT
Contingency Theory retains a central place in organization and management research, but the
concept organizational fit is treated generally in a relatively static and unidimensional manner, a
manner that is incommensurate with the dynamic and often unpredictable, disruptive,
multicontingency nature of organizational contexts today. Organizations address multiple,
shifting contingency factors simultaneously, and as equilibria are punctuated with increasing
frequency, one or more factors can be expected to change constantly. Seeking constantly to
establish, re-establish and maintain “good” static fit may prove to represent an inferior strategy.
Yet this represents a centerpiece of Contingency Theory as we know it. The problem is that the
concept static fit is becoming anachronistic, and both conceptual and methodological tools for
assessing and predicting dynamic fit with changing organizations and multicontingency contexts
remain largely absent. In this article, we work to extend Contingency Theory through
conceptualization of dynamic organizational fit, articulating an inherently dynamic relationship
between multicontingency fit and organizational performance. We begin with promising
contingency conceptualizations in Organization and Management Theory, and then draw from
Dynamics to inform both conceptualization and operationalization of dynamic fit in terms of
longitudinal, multidimensional trajectories. We illustrate the ensuing conceptual integration in a
punctuated equilibrium context, and elucidate important interrelationships between static and
dynamic organizational fit. This moves us considerably beyond fit as a static concept and
unidimensional construct, and offers insight into operationalization via two, new, inherently
dynamic constructs. A set of evocative research propositions emerges, and we guide continued
research along the lines of this investigation.

INTRODUCTION
For more than a half century, Contingency Theory has retained a central place in organization
and management research. Beginning with seminal works by Burns and Stalker (1961),
Woodward (1965), and Lawrence and Lorsch (1967), organization and management theory has
been guided by the understanding that no single approach to organizing is best in all
circumstances. Moreover, myriad empirical studies (e.g., Argote, 1982; Donaldson, 1987;
Hamilton & Shergill, 1992, 1993; Keller, 1994; cf. Mohr, 1971; Pennings, 1975) have confirmed
and reconfirmed that poor organizational fit degrades performance, and many diverse

1

organizational structures (e.g., Functional, Decentralized, Mixed, see Duncan, 1979), forms (e.g.,
Bureaucracy, see Weber 1924/1947; M-Form, see Chandler Jr., A. D., 1962; Clan, see Ouchi,
1981; Network, see Miles and Snow, 1978; Platform, see Ciborra, 1996; Virtual, see Davidow
and Malone, 1992), configurations (e.g., Machine Bureaucracy, Simple Structure, Professional
Bureaucracy, Divisionalized Form, Adhocracy, see Mintzberg, 1979) and other groupingsi have
been theorized to enhance fit across an array of contingency factors (e.g., age, environment, size,
strategy, technology).
Indeed, organization and management scholars have come to understand well how
various organizational forms are and should be designed and changed to fit specific contingency
contexts. For instance, organizational technology has been studied extensively as a powerful
contingency factor (e.g., Litwak, 1961; Woodward, 1965; Pugh et al., 1969), with alternate
technological characteristics (e.g., task variability, problem analyzability) related contingently
with different organizational forms (e.g., Craft, Engineering, see Perrow, 1970). As another
instance, organizational environment has been studied extensively as a powerful contingency
factor also (e.g., Burns & Stalker, 1961; Galbraith, 1973; Harvey, 1968), with alternate
environmental characteristics (e.g., complexity, change) related contingently with different
organizational structures (e.g., Functional, Decentralized, see Duncan, 1979).
Particularly through the early phases of this research, the concept organizational fit has
been treated in a relatively static and unidimensional manner, a manner that is incommensurate
with the dynamic and often unpredictable, disruptive, multicontingency nature of organizational
contexts today. In particular, the early concept has been limited largely to describing fit at a
particular point in time (i.e., statically), with some specific organizational structure (e.g., Mixed
Functional) prescribed as most appropriate for a single contingency factor (e.g., organizational

2

environment) and the perceived context (e.g., complex and changing) corresponding to such
factor at that point in time.
But as noted above, scholars have identified an array of multiple contingency factors
(e.g., age, environment, size, strategy, technology) that organizations must address, and
articulated how they must be addressed as a multicontingency set (e.g., see Gresov and Drazin,
1997) along with other dimensions of organizational life (e.g., strategic choice, see Child, 1972;
Hambrick, 1983; Govindarajan, 1986; culture, see Deshpande and Webster, 1989) and
management interventions (e.g., see Covin and Slevin, 1989; Doty et al., 1993).
Indeed, building recently upon such research, Burton et al. (2006) identify 14
contingency factors (e.g., goal, strategy, environment) that an organization must address
simultaneously, and they explain how the set of factors can change through time, circumstance
and management action. Assessing fit in such dynamic, multicontingency contexts becomes
more challenging in both static and dynamic terms. Statically, with multiple contingency factors
in a set to address simultaneously, the contingency-organization design task is more complex,
and it becomes increasingly difficult to prescribe a single organizational form deemed to be most
appropriate in the context of the whole set of factors. Dynamically, with multiple contingency
factors in a set changing through time, circumstance and management action, the contingency
forecasting task is more complex, and it becomes increasingly difficult to anticipate any specific
set of contingency factors remaining static for long.
Moreover, these challenges are exacerbated by the dynamics associated with
organizational change. Since most organizations require considerable time to change structure
(Pant, 1998), managers need to anticipate future changes across the whole set of contingency
factors. Yet organizational scholars (e.g., Chaharbaghi and Nugent, 1994; Donaldson, 1987;

3

Tung, 1979) note widely that the contingency contexts of many modern organizations can
change rapidly and unpredictably (Romanelli and Tushman, 1994), due to multiple factors such
as globalization (Raynor and Bower, 2001), technology (Adner and Levinthal, 2002; Rahrami,
1992), hypercompetition (D’Aveni, 1994, Hanssen-Bauer and Snow, 1996), knowledge-based
innovation (Jelinek and Schoonhaven, 1990), explicit linking of organizational structures to
strategies (Zajac et al., 2000; Sabherwal et al., 2001; Venkatraman and Prescott, 1990), mounting
competition from co-evolutionary firms (Barnett and Sorenson, 2002), high-velocity
environments that are in perpetual flux (Eisenhardt and Tabrizi, 1995), and the kinds of
nonlinear, dynamic environmental patterns that never establish equilibrium (Levy, 1994; Stacey,
1995).
As equilibria are punctuated with increasing frequency (Peteraf and Reed, 2007)—or
even more demanding, as dynamic, multicontingency contexts move toward continuous,
unpredictable change (Lengnick-Hall and Beck, 2005)—seeking to establish, re-establish and
maintain “good” static fit may prove to represent an inferior strategy (Pant, 1998; Westerman et
al., 2006). Yet establishing, re-establishing and maintaining “good” static fit represents a
centerpiece of Contingency Theory as we know it. The problem is not with fit as a concept; it
continues to serve us well in terms of descriptive, explanatory, predictive and normative power.
The problem is with static fit: it is becoming anachronistic, and both conceptual and
methodological tools for assessing and predicting dynamic fit with changing organizations and
multicontingency contexts remain largely absent (Zajac et al., 2000).
In this article, we work to extend Contingency Theory through conceptualization of
dynamic organizational fit, articulating an inherently dynamic relationship between
multicontingency fit and organizational performance that extends well-understood static

4

concepts to address the dynamic reality of organization and management today. We begin with
promising conceptualizations in Organization and Management Theory, and then draw from
Dynamics to inform both conceptualization and operationalization of dynamic fit in terms of
longitudinal, multidimensional trajectories. We illustrate the ensuing conceptual integration in a
punctuated equilibrium context, and elucidate important interrelationships between static and
dynamic organizational fit. This work moves us considerably beyond fit as a static concept and
unidimensional construct to address longitudinal, multicontingency, organizational performance,
fit and change. This work also offers insight into operationalization via two, new, inherently
dynamic constructs. A set of evocative research propositions emerges from this discussion, and
we discuss a number of emergent, open issues to help populate an agenda and guide continued
research along the lines of this investigation.
BACKGROUND
In this section, we provide focused review of two key literatures to inform us regarding dynamic
fit. We begin with promising contingency conceptualizations in Organization and Management
Theory, and then draw from Dynamics to inform both conceptualization and operationalization
of dynamic fit in terms of longitudinal, multidimensional trajectories.


5

Conceptualizations in Organization and Management Theory

The concept dynamic fit has been considered in some respects for several decades and through
multiple theoretical perspectives. As one stream of relevant research, population ecologists (e.g.,
Hannan and Freeman, 1977; McKelvey, 1982; Hannan and Carroll, 1995) have argued that some
organizational populations (e.g., consider select organizational forms or configurations) are
suited inherently better for certain ecologies (e.g., consider environments) than others are.
Further, forces of adaptation (e.g., organizational variation, selection, and diffusion) work to
preserve the populations exhibiting better fit, and hence to alter the composition of
organizational ecologies over time (e.g., with some populations destined to survive and others
destined to fail). With this view, the dynamics of fit are deemed to manifest themselves via
interactions between populations and their ecologies, and are relatively insulated from
management influence; that is, most managers in relatively poor-fitting organizations are
destined to see their organizations fail, whereas those in relatively well-fitting counterparts are
destined to see theirs succeed. This perspective includes negligible opportunity for managerial
intervention to address situations of misfit (see Scott, 2003).
An alternate, contingency theory perspective sees ample opportunity for management to
adjust organizational structure in order to establish or re-establish fit. Building upon Burns and
Stalker (1961), who suggest that organizations in misfit are expected to modify their structures to
move into fit with their environments or other contingencies, we note how Thompson (1967, p.
p. 234) discusses alignment as a “moving target,” suggesting that organizational designs must
change longitudinally (i.e., via managerial intervention). In discussing a contingent, dynamic
linkage between organizational strategy and structure, Donaldson (1987) describes how changes
in strategies can produce misfits with organizational structures, and calls for structural adaptation

6

to regain fit over time (again via managerial intervention). Similarly, set largely within a
technological, information systems context, Sabherwal et al. (2001) embrace the punctuated
equilibrium model (e.g., see Eldridge and Gould, 1972; Gersick, 1991) to assess the alignment
between strategy and structure, and suggest that a dynamic re-alignment pattern may persist over
long periods of time. Likewise, Romanelli and Tushman (1994) embrace punctuated equilibrium
also, suggesting that the large majority of organizational transformations take place via rapid,
discontinuous, management-induced change. Peteraf and Reed (2007) argue further how
dynamic fit represents an important managerial capability for organizational change, highlighting
in an argument against population ecology that fit trumps best practice.
Further, several researchers note the ironic need for managers to move their organizations
purposefully out of fit. With a longitudinal view, the idea is that, even though an organization
may enjoy a situation of good fit at some point in time and with respect to some set of
contingencies, for various reasons management might benefit from creating a situation of misfit
in anticipation of a different time and set of contingencies. For instance, Pant (1998) argues how
managers need to anticipate environmental change, because organizations can require
considerable time to change structures. Hence, in this dynamic view that considers lag time, in
order to bring an organization into fit with a future and changing environment, managers must
anticipate not only the environmental change, but the organization’s resistance to and time
required to effect change. Similarly, Westerman et al. (2006) discuss how organizational designs
that fit well with “early” strategic contingencies (e.g., in the early part of the innovation life
cycle) can fall into natural misfit with “later” ones. They go further by suggesting a tension
between managerial approaches, one that requires some assessment of tradeoffs in this dynamic

7

context: either seek to minimize the negative effects of misfit situations, or seek to undertake
timely organizational change.
Despite discussion of dynamic adjustments to misfit situations via organizational change,
in this contingency theory perspective, the fit concept is viewed as relatively static in most cases:
an organization structure may fall out of fit—whether because of environmental change or by
deliberate managerial action—at some point in time, and then undergo change in attempt to re-
establish fit at some other point in time. This is analogous to equilibrium models from
economics, in which analysis of even shifting supply and demand is made only at conditions of
static equilibrium. In our organizational context, environments, strategies and other
contingencies may shift periodically, and organizational structures may be changed in either
anticipation or response, but the analysis focuses on preserving or regaining static fit in some
kind of (punctuated) equilibrium context. Zajac et al. (2000) argue, however, that such emphasis
on static fit is inadequate for longitudinal understanding, and that examining dynamic fit can
inform strategic change. They cite the need for both conceptual and methodological tools to
assess and predict strategic and organizational fit with changing environments and organizations.
As one promising approach, Tushman and O’Reilly (1999) discuss ambidextrous
organizations, which are able to operate simultaneously in multiple modes. For instance, an
organization may take a relatively short-term focus on efficiency and control—essentially
striving to exploit current organization and capabilities—while simultaneously taking a relatively
long-term focus on innovation and risk taking—essentially striving to explore future
organization and opportunities. They describe how an organization may even adopt multiple,
inconsistent architectures or structures to pursue this approach. This is analogous to the
equilibrium model in economics also, in which decisions and behaviors are made and examined

8

over different timeframes (esp. short-term and long-term). For instance, in the short-term, a great
many economic factors of interest (e.g., costs, capabilities, supply) are fixed, but over the long-
term, they become variable. Nonetheless, in our organizational context, both the short-term and
long-term foci (i.e., both exploitation and exploration) concern static fit: current exploitation fits
current contingencies, and future exploration fits future contingencies.
As another promising approach, Lengnick-Hall and Beck (2005) contrast the notion of
adaptive fit—essentially shifting from one static-fit context to another over time—with robust
transformation: “a deliberately transient, episodic response to a new, yet fluid equilibrium” (p.
742). In this view, there is no presumption that specific environmental conditions will move to
equilibrium; hence organizational structures cannot be changed to achieve static fit. This
represents a departure from most of the contingency research on fit. It builds upon Brown and
Eisenhardt (1997), who argue that continuous change represents a more appropriate perspective
than punctuated equilibrium does. It also acknowledges the kinds of hypercompetitive (D’Aveni,
1994) and high-velocity environments that are in perpetual flux (Eisenhardt and Tabrizi, 1995),
and the kinds of nonlinear, dynamic environmental patterns that never establish equilibrium (see
Levy, 1994, Stacey, 1995).
Robust transformation represents a complementary approach to adaptive fit: it seeks to
develop responsiveness, flexibility and an expanded action repertoire as opposed to seeking
higher levels of fit over time. In essence, this approach acknowledges that, at least with some
environmental contingencies, an organization may be unable to change quickly enough to
maintain adaptive fit, and that seeking flexibility may represent a superior approach in such
situations. The authors introduce the approach resilience capacity, which implies a capability to
recognize where objectives such as responsiveness, flexibility and an expanded action repertoire

9

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