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Systemic Innovation of Complex One-off Products: The Case of Green Buildings

Organization Design

ISBN: 978-1-78756-330-8, eISBN: 978-1-78756-329-2

Publication date: 10 December 2018


The authors provide new quantitative evidence of the relationship between technologies and organizational design in the context of complex one-off products. The systems that produce complex, one-off products in mature, fragmented industries such as construction lack many of the typical organizational features that researchers have deemed critical to product development success (e.g., team familiarity, frequent communication, and strong leadership). In contrast, the complexity of these products requires a diverse knowledge base that is rarely found within a single firm. The one-off nature of construction’s products further requires improvization and development by a distributed network of highly specialized teams. And because the product is complex, significant innovations in the end product require systemic shifts in the product architecture. Riitta Katila, Raymond E. Levitt and Dana Sheffer use an original, hand-collected dataset of the design and construction of 112 energy-efficient “green” buildings in the United States, combined with in-depth fieldwork, to study these questions. A key conclusion is that the mature US construction industry, with its particularly fragmented supply chain, is not well suited to implementing “systemic innovations” that require coordination across trades or stages of the project. However, project integration across specialists with the highest levels of interdependence (i.e., craft, contract integration) mitigates the knowledge and coordination problems. There are implications for research on how technology shapes organizations (and particularly how organizations shape technology), and on the supply chain configuration strategies of firms in the construction industry as well as building owners who are seeking to build the best buildings possible within their budgets.




The research leading up to this chapter was supported, in part, by funds from the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) and the Global Projects Center (GPC) at Stanford University. We gratefully acknowledge their support. In addition, we would like to acknowledge all of the construction companies and their clients who provided us with data about innovations on their projects, and who prefer to remain anonymous. This research would not have been possible without their generous support.


Katila, R., Levitt, R.E. and Sheffer, D. (2018), "Systemic Innovation of Complex One-off Products: The Case of Green Buildings", Organization Design (Advances in Strategic Management, Vol. 40), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 299-328.



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