A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice

Subject: Management Theories
Pages: 5
Words: 1168
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: PhD

Abstract of the article

It can be argued that structured anarchies are companies exemplified by problematical inclinations, vague technology, and fluid participation (Cohen, Michael D., James G. March, Johan P. Olsen, 1972). Recent research effort on the form of structured anarchies, point out that such organizations can be perceived for several aims 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 (Cohen et al, 1972). These ideas are translated into an explicit computer simulation model of a garbage can decision process (Cohen et al, 1972). The common implications of such a model are depicted in terms of five major measures on the process (Cohen et al, 1972). Possible applications of the model to more narrow predictions are illustrated by an examination of the model’s predictions with respect to the effect of adversity on university decision making (Cohen et al, 1972).

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A Garbage Can Model

The Garbage Can model of organizational theory was formulated by Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen in 1972 (Bendor, Moe, & Shotts, 2001). This was in respect to unclear behaviors such as explanations of behaviors which at least appear to challenge classical theory (Bendor et al, 2001). This Model was controlled by the awareness that extreme cases of collective 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 rationality of economic man (Kilduff et al, 2000).The Garbage Can Model was formally developed in the framework of the operation of universities and their many inter-departmental communications problems (Kilduff et al, 2000).

The Model endeavored to advance organizational decision theory into the then uncharted field of organizational anarchy which is featured by problematic preferences, unclear technology and fluid participation (Padgett, 1980). The hypothetical penetrate of the Garbage Can Model is that it disconnects problems, solutions and decision makers from each other, unlike traditional decision theory (Padgett, 1980). This is due to the fact that certain decisions do not follow an orderly process from problem to solution, but are outcomes of several relatively independent streams of events within the organization (Padgett, 1980).The Garbage Can Model was based on a computer simulation coded in FORTRAN (Padgett, 1980).

Four of those streams were identified in Cohen, March & Olsen’s original conceptualization including problems, solutions, opportunities and participants.

In this model it is understood that, Problems call for attention and they are the outcome of performance gaps or the inability to predict the future (Cohen et al, 1972). Implying that, problems may emanate inside or outside the organization (Cohen et al, 1972). Conventionally, it has been assumed that problems trigger decision processes; if they are sufficiently grave, this may happen however an organization man goes through the garbage and looks for a suitable fix, called a solution (Cohen et al, 1972).

The theory sees solutions to have a life of their own and they are separate from problems which they might be called on to solve whereby they are answers looking for a question (Schmid, 1987). Participants may have ideas for solutions; they may be attracted to certain solutions and volunteer to play the advocate (Schmid, 1987). Only trivial solutions do not require advocacy and preparations and that important solutions have to be prepared without knowledge of the problems they might have to solve (Schmid, 1987).

The model tells us that, there are occasions when organizations are expected to produce behavior that can be called a decision and similar to how politicians cherish photo opportunities; organization man needs occasional decision opportunities for reasons unrelated to the decision itself (Cohen et al, 1972).

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Further the theory explains that Participants come and go implying that participation varies between problems and solutions (Kilduff et al, 2000). This is to say that the process of participation may vary depending on the other time demands of participants (Kilduff et al, 2000). Participants may have favorite problems or favorite solutions which they carry around with them (Kilduff et al, 2000).

It can be argued that organizations tend to generate many solutions which are discarded due to a lack of appropriate problems however problems may eventually arise for which a search of the garbage might yield fitting solutions (Bendor et al, 2001).

Moreover, perhaps, the greatest perspective of the Carnegie School is that organizations operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences; their own processes are not understood by their members (Cohen et al, 1972); they operate by trial and error; their boundaries are uncertain and changing; decision-makers for any particular choice change capriciously (Bendor et al, 2001). Therefore, in order to understand organizational processes, one can view choice opportunities as garbage cans into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped (Bendor et al, 2001). The mix of garbage depends on the mix of labeled cans available, on what garbage is currently produced and the speed with which garbage and garbage cans are removed (Bendor et al, 2001).

The idea of the Garbage Can Model is that it disconnects problems, solutions and decision makers from each other, unlike traditional decision theory such as Taylor’s classical theory which advocates the application of logic to every aspect of production whereby division of labor, the breaking down of tasks into efficient units, and the logical reconstruction of those units in the most productive way which results in management’s total control of production (Schmid, 1987). This is due to the fact that certain decisions do not follow an orderly process from problem to solution, but are outcomes of several relatively independent streams of events within the organization (Schmid, 1987)


The Garbage Can model tries to explore some organizational decision-making anomalies specifically, decision making by organized anarchies where preferences are not clear, technology is not clear, or participation is fluid (Bendor et al, 2001). Problems, solutions, and decision makers move from one choice to another depending on the mix of recognized problems, the choices available, the mix of solutions available for problems, and outside influences on the decision makers (Bendor et al, 2001). In short, problems are uncoupled from choices giving an image of “rummaging around” inside a garbage can (Kilduff et al, 2000). Problems are addressed based on a solution choice, but choices are made based on shifting combinations of problems, solutions, and decision makers (Kilduff et al, 2000). In this sense, decision-making appears “pathological” instead of rational (Kilduff et al, 2000).

The Garbage Can theory allows problems to be addressed and choices to be made, but does not necessarily following a rational process (Cohen et al, 1972). Poorly understood and addressed problems can drift into and out of the garbage can process, depending on the situation and factors (Cohen et al, 1972). Overall, the garbage can model of theorizing consists of efforts to (randomly) match and unite potential candidate theories with potential correlations in one’s data (Schmid, 1987).


Bendor, J.; Moe, T, M; & Shotts, K. W. (2001). Recycling the garbage can: An assessment of the research program. American Political Science Review 95(1), 169-190.

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Cohen, Michael D., James G. March, Johan P. Olsen (1972) A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1. (1972), pp. 1-25.

Kilduff M, Angelmar R, Mehra A (2000), Top management-team diversity and firm performance: Examining the role of cognitions, organizational science 11: (1) 21-34.

Padgett, J. F. (1980) Managing garbage can hierarchies. Administrative Science Quarterly 25(4): 583-604.

Schmid, H., Dodd, P. & Tropman, J. E. (1987). Board decision making in human service organizations, Human Systems Management, 7(2) 155-161.