You may not like having your business decisions compared to dumpster diving, but that's the implication of the garbage can model. As described by researchers Cohen, March and Olsen in 1972, organizations toss all their problems and possible solutions into a metaphorical trash can. When they need to solve a problem, they grope around in the can and pull out a solution virtually at random.
The garbage can model says most organizational decisions are irrational.
A century ago, decision-making models assumed that managers made policy choices and solved problems rationally. Faced with a challenge, they gathered all relevant facts, evaluated them carefully and selected the solution that met the best interests of the firm.
In real life, that often isn't possible. Managers may not have all the information, the time to make a decision or see clearly which organizational choice is best.
Alternative theories assume that managers make decisions irrationally. For example, the incremental model says managers make whichever decision requires the least possible effort, even if it's not the best solution. The Cohen, March and Olsen garbage can model allows for managers making more effort than that. However, it still assumes that they're making irrational decisions.
In Cohen, March and Olsen's view, decision makers often operate in an irrational environment with a lot of uncertainty. As a result, they make decisions without following the rational approach of gathering facts and weighing the evidence thoughtfully. Garbage can decision making doesn't go looking for the perfect solution. Instead, it mixes and matches the elements the organization has already piled into the can:
- Choices looking for problems
- Issues and feelings looking for decisions to affect
- Solutions looking for issues they can resolve
- Decision-makers looking for something to do
The original 1972 theory concentrated on academic institutions. Later writers expanded it to decision making in business. For a garbage can theory example, consider an entrepreneur who is launching his third or fourth startup. When he runs into a problem, his first thought might be to draw on experience: reach into the garbage can for one of the solutions he's used in similar situations before.
The creators of the garbage can model weren't recommending this approach as a way to make decisions. Instead, they claimed this was how decision making usually worked. Problem solving in this model is an anarchic mess where managers simply seize the first solution they dredge out of the trash. Because that solution worked once, it might fix things again, but that isn't a slam dunk.
Critics of the model have several objections. One is that we don't pick solutions completely randomly, even when we're under pressure. Instead, we're restrained by our pre-existing biases. Another objection is that while many decisions may look random, that's because we can't see some of the underlying influences shaping them.
There hasn't been a lot of research to confirm or disprove the original garbage can model. This may be because people want leaders to make informed, well thought out and rational decisions. Irrational decision making is seen as something to avoid, not study and analyze.
The garbage can approach sounds like it would produce garbage results. That's not necessarily true. A successful entrepreneur or manager often has plenty of experience solving business problems. Drawing on that past experience by reaching into the can can produce a good solution for current problems.
On the other hand, using what's in the garbage can guarantees you won't come up with anything new or original that you haven't tried before. That can be a mistake. If the best solution to the current problem is a new idea, restricting yourself to what's in the can won't get you the best results. Entrepreneurs who come up with new ideas can add them to the can for future problem-solving efforts.
Cohen, March and Olsen believed garbage can decision making would produce suboptimal results. The manager's choice might solve the problem eventually, but another choice might have resolved things just as well. Other problems just bounce from solution to solution without really getting resolved. The trio list several possible outcomes from garbage can decision making:
- Flight. Problems wait in the can for a long while without being matched up with a usable solution. In the end, they're never solved.
- Oversight. The decision makers are desperate to solve a problem, so they grab a solution from the can and apply it. The solution doesn't really fit, but the deciders can claim everything's been resolved.
- Resolution. Sometimes, management will dredge up solutions from the garbage can that actually solve the problem. This is more due to luck and chance than any sort of rational process.
The creators of the garbage can model believed people made decisions this way because rational, formal decision making often wasn't practical.
School principals, for instance, have to reach decisions while navigating among multiple stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, local school boards and other officials and possibly the local community. Trying to balance the desires of all these interested parties with a rational, analytical, calmly reasoned approach often proves impossible. That's particularly true when decisions have to be made within a limited time, often under pressure.
The result? Principals default to making decisions based on their experience of what works and the community's opinion of what outcomes are acceptable. They also want to make it obvious that they're working hard on the problem. They may make decisions just to demonstrate that the school is working on solutions, even if the solutions aren't helpful.
A study of Israeli schools found three situations in which the administration defaulted to the garbage can approach:
- When schools have to make a decision on teaching methods or handling students
- How schools implement reforms imposed on them
- How to use school resources
New teaching methods are often handed down from higher authorities with a mandate that the schools adopt them. Teachers don't get time to explore the new approach, see how they can make it work or experiment with it. If a problem student needs to be disciplined, the solution may center on whichever path will keep his parents from complaining.
In Cohen, March and Olsen's view, leadership has a limited role in shaping the organization's decisions. A good leader can't stop garbage can decision making, but they can influence what comes out of the can:
- They set the timetable for when the organization tackles issues or problems.
- They're sensitive to the interests and involvement of the staff working on solutions.
- They drop problem-solving initiatives that have become hopelessly tangled and ineffective.
- They accept that their plans may be more symbolic than productive.
- They decide how much effort and energy to devote to solving a problem.
- They provide connections to the available resources.
A study of IT project success and failure found that the outcomes depended on whether the leadership was hierarchical and top-down or empowered lower-ranked employees to participate. Projects that allowed for more participation in decisions were more likely to succeed.
Perhaps the most effective thing leaders can do is make a conscious choice not to use garbage can decision making. A deliberate effort to look for new solutions and ideas rather than recycle whatever's in the can or whatever causes the least inconvenience can go a long way toward producing good results.