Garbage Can Model

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Contributed by: Thomas Poulsen


What is the Garbage Can Model? Meaning.

In the Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice, originally formulated by Cohen, March & Olsen, an Organization is compared to a garbage can. An Organization is a collection 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 the answer.

  • Decision makers looking for work.

One can 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 Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice was originally formulated by Cohen, March & Olsen in the context of the operation of universities and their many inter-departmental communications problems. The model was developed in reference to "ambiguous behaviors", i.e. explanations/interpretations of behaviors (Compare: Cognitive Bias) which at least appear to contradict classical theory. The model was greatly influenced by the realization that extreme cases of aggregate uncertainty in decision environments would trigger behavioral responses which, at least from a distance, appear "irrational" or at least not in compliance with the total/global rationality of "economic man" (e.g. "act first, think later").

Organized anarchies are organizations characterized by problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation. Studies of universities, a familiar form of organized anarchy, suggest that such organizations can be viewed for some purposes 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.

The garbage can model assumes that structures influence outcomes of garbage can decisions by:

  • Affecting the time pattern of the arrival of problems, choices, solutions, and decision makers;

  • Determining allocation of energy; and

  • Establishing linkages among the various streams of resources.

The garbage can process is shown to be one in which problems, solutions, and participants move from one choice opportunity to another in such a way that the nature of the choice, the time it takes, and the problems it solves all depend on a relatively complicated intermeshing of elements. These include the mix of choices available at any one time, the mix of problems that have access to the organization, the mix of solutions looking for problems, and the outside demands on the decision makers. Although the garbage can process does not resolve problems well, 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, and a variable environment.

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Compare with: Management Metaphors  |  Cognitive Bias  |  Mind Mapping  |  Real Options  |  Theory of Constraints  |  Feasibility Study  |  Ten Schools of Thought  |  Johari Window  |  Groupthink  |  SECI model

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