Constrained Growth: How Experience, Legitimacy, and Age Influence Risk Taking in Organizations

Vinit M. Desai
ORGANIZATION SCIENCE Vol. 19: p. 594-608

Poor performance indicates that an organization’s routines are not well suited for its environment and prompts decision makers to search for solutions. However, results conflict regarding how this search process influences risk taking in organizations. Managers in some organizations facing actual or expected performance shortfalls tend to take risks, while managers in other poorly performing organizations avoid risky changes. This conflict is interesting because some level of risk taking appears necessary for organizations to remain competitive, adapt to their environment, and improve performance. This study examines several mechanisms that moderate risk taking following performance shortfalls. First, I draw from organizational learning theories to argue that organizations with limited operating experience are less buffered from failure, and hence that poor performance constrains risk taking at these organizations. Second, I argue that organizations with poor legitimacy are also less buffered, and hence that performance shortfalls also lead to risk aversion at these organizations. Third, I draw from structural inertia theory to suggest that older organizations are less able to support risk taking following performance shortfalls. A test of these hypotheses on the capacity expansion behavior of U.S. railroad companies generally supports these hypotheses, although the effect of age is weaker. The findings contribute to theories of organizational learning and to several perspectives in organization theory more broadly.