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Ambiguities in organizations and the routines of behavior and change

Jarle Trondal (Political Science and Management Department, University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway)

International Journal of Organizational Analysis

ISSN: 1934-8835

Article publication date: 9 March 2015




The aim of this article is threefold: the primary aim is conceptual by outlining two ideal-typical ideas about organizational life. These models offer rival ideas about how organizations balance seemingly conflicting patterns of behaviour and change in everyday life. The second ambition of the article is to outline a theoretical approach of organizational life arguing that even fairly loosely coupled organizations may be profoundly patterned by everyday routines as much as by ambiguity. The third and final ambition is to offer empirical illustrations from organizations that are often considered as archetypes of loose coupling and ambiguities: jazz orchestras and university organizations. The empirical discussion, however, illustrates that behaviour and change in these organizations are coined by routines and rules.


Two common dynamics often observed in organizations are highlighted: first, organizations viewed as sets of formal structures and routines that systematically bias organizational performance and change, and secondly, organizations as loosely coupled structures that enable improvisation with respect to organizational performance and change. How organizations live with and practice such seemingly contradictory dynamics is empirically illuminated in two types of organizations that are seldom analysed in tandem – university organizations and jazz orchestras. Drawing on contemporary research on these seemingly contradictory laboratories of organizational analysis, some observations are highlighted that indeed are common to both types of organizations. Furthermore, it is argued that lessons may be drawn from organizations where turbulence is common and where seemingly un-organized processes are quite regular. University organizations and jazz orchestras represent such types of organizations.


First, the degree of ambiguity in organizations is a matter of degree, not an either/or, and that the uncertainty and spontaneity observed in organizational behaviour and change is more patterned than often assumed (see Heimer and Stinchcombe, 1999; Strauss, 1979). As such, organization theory may be a useful extension of the garbage can model, suggesting that streams in decision-making processes may be systematically pre-packed and patterned by the availability of access and attention structures (Cohen et al., 1976). Secondly, scholarship in organizational studies needs to do away with over-simplistic dichotomies when facing complex realities. This challenge is equal for studies of public sector organizations as for scholarship in business and management. Organization studies often face the tyranny of conceptual dichotomies (Olsen, 2007). This article suggests that the distinction between loose and tight coupling in organizations, as between improvisation and pre-planned activities in organizations, face the danger of shoehorning complex data into simple categories. Originality/value – How organizations live with and practice seemingly contradictory dynamics is empirically illuminated in two types of organizations that are seldom analysed in tandem in organizational studies – university organizations and jazz orchestras. These conflicting organizational dynamics pinpoint one classical dilemma in university and jazz life beleaguered on the inherent trade-off between instrumental design and the logic of hierarchy on the one hand, and individual artistic autonomy and professional neutrality on the other. “[T]he purpose of developing the jazz metaphor is to draw out the collaborative, spontaneous and artful aspects of organizing in contradiction to the engineered, planned and controlled models that dominate modern management thoughts” (Hatch, 1999, p. 4). This dilemma highlights competing understandings of organizational life, of institutional change, and of what the pursuit of organizational goals ultimately entails.



This article serves as part of the “COMPOL” project (“The Rise of Common Political Order”, basic research grant from the University of Agder). The author would like to thank Åse Gornitzka, four anonymous reviewers, the editor, and the associate editor for helpful comments in preparing the final version of the article.


Trondal, J. (2015), "Ambiguities in organizations and the routines of behavior and change", International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 23 No. 1, pp. 123-141.



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