A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice (Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen)

Organizations are, by definition, organized – typically, through hierarchical structures. Managers of organizations lead by taking rational decisions in response to well-defined situations and on the basis of clearly-established preferences. Management is relatively stable and managerial decisions are implemented through clear lines of command and authority. Right? In 1972, three young Stanford-based organization theorists had the temerity to publish an article (‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 17, N° 1, March 1973, pp. 1-25) in which they argued that the correct answer, most of the time, is ‘wrong’. They based their argument on three simple assumptions about organizations. The first is that in many organizations preferences tend to be unclear and inadvertently ‘discovered’ through action (or reaction). The second is what they call ‘unclear technology’, by which they mean that many organizations’ processes are not understood by their members. Such organizations tend to act through ‘pragmatic inventions of necessity’ as much as anything else. The third assumption is ‘fluid participation’, by which they mean that participants in decisions ‘vary in the amount of time and effort they devote to different domains’ and the participants, and their involvement, ‘vary from one time to another.’ The result, the authors argue, is that ‘the boundaries of the organization are uncertain and changing; the audiences and decision makers for any kind of choice change capriciously.’ Organizations that satisfy these three conditions – problematic preferences, unclear technology and fluid participation – are, they declare ‘organized anarchies’. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the article explains why it isn’t. Indeed, they argue that such organized anarchy is characteristic of any organization in part, at least part of the time, though it is particularly conspicuous in public organizations. In a famous and much-quoted passage, they further argue that such organizations can be viewed: ‘as collections of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be an answer, and decision makers looking for work.’

Being scientists, the authors appended an impenetrable (for the layman) Fortran programme analysis of their theory, using universities as their subject, but you don’t need to read the programme analysis to get what has by now become an obvious, even an intuitive, point. Consider universities and their typical composition: the academic staff; professors and lecturers with tenure and those with more precarious status; the student body and its representative organizations; faculties; interdisciplinary bodies; research centres; the Chancellor or President; the governing board; central management; the finance department; public and private funding and endowments… Each of the actors in this far from exhaustive list is likely to have preferences, held with greater or lesser intensity, depending on the issue; in the nature of things, the actors are unlikely to understand – or even care much about – processes in other parts of the organization (why should a privately-endowed research lab know or care about the university finance department’s annual woes, for example?); and these different actors are likely to give voice on different issues at different times, if at all (most obviously, the student body will be largely silent during vacation periods). As anybody who has ever studied or worked in a university knows, universities are organized anarchies.

So where does the ‘garbage can’ come in? The metaphor relates back to the ideal concept of the organization mentioned at the start of this article. ‘Although,’ the authors argue, ‘it may be convenient to imagine that choice opportunities lead first to the generation of decision alternatives, then to an examination of their consequences, then to an evaluation of those consequences in terms of objectives, and finally to a decision,’ the truth is that ‘this type of model is often a poor description of what actually happens.’ Rather, it is better to view a choice opportunity ‘as a garbage can into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped by participants as they are generated. The mix of garbage in a single can depends on the mix of cans available, on the labels attached to the alternative cans, on what garbage is currently being produced, and on the speed with which garbage is collected and removed from the scene.’ Put another way, traditional management theory proposes mechanisms for control and coordination which are based on assumptions that largely do not hold true and are therefore inappropriate if not doomed to failure – and this notwithstanding the undoubted rationality and positive intentions of the actors involved. As the authors drily observe, understanding the ramifications of the garbage can process (which they go on to address in their article) provides ‘some clues to how organizations survive when they do not know what they are doing.’

It is not all gloom and doom. The garbage can process – surely familiar to most people working in organizations of any sort – may not resolve problems well; ‘But it does enable choices to be made and problems resolved, even when the organization is plagued with goal ambiguity and conflict, with poorly understood problems that wander in and out of the system, with a variable environment, and with decision makers who may have other things on their minds.’ Moreover, understanding the process means that ‘organizational design and decision making can take account of its existence and that, to some extent, it can be managed.’ Surely few management theories are of more relevance to international organizations and international representative organizations, with their many different constituencies and actors, frequent turnover, and their various levels of far from perfect communication, let alone understanding.

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