The Garbage Can Model of Decision Making

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  • 0:00 The Garbage Can Model
  • 1:17 Organizational Streams
  • 2:19 Decision Styles
  • 3:13 Implications of the…
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Olga Bugajenko

Olga is a registered PRINCE2 Practitioner and has a master's degree in project management.

Organizations can be messy! The garbage can model explains the decision-making process in organizations with changing preferences, poor processes and high staff turnover.

The Garbage Can Model

The garbage can model is quite different from traditional decision-making models. It assumes that organizations are far from perfect and operate in a state of anarchy (without rules). Organizational preferences and processes are unclear to the members of the organization, and decision-makers in the organization change frequently. The garbage can model assumes that no organizational process for finding a solution to a problem exists and that decision-makers are disconnected from problems and solutions.

In this chaos, many unnecessary solutions are produced. This is also known as organizational garbage. Occasionally, a problem arises for which a solution already exists. Choice opportunities, or opportunities to make a decision about a problem, are treated like garbage cans. Various problems and solutions are thrown into these opportunities - just like garbage. How good are you with recycling? Some people have only one bin, while others will be more structured and separate plastic from glass. Similarly, some organizations will end up with unrelated problems and solutions discussed at the same meeting, while other organizations will have more structure to their problem solving. The garbage can model was created by Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen in 1972.

Organizational Streams

In the absence of a formal decision-making process, a solution comes as a result of the interplay (interaction) of four independent organizational streams:

  1. Problems can originate both within and outside the organization and require attention. An example of a problem is having insufficient personnel to handle all incoming work.

  2. Solutions, a result of someone's work, these are usually created before a problem existed. The organization's members then search for ways to apply existing solutions. A solution might be in the form of more efficient tracking of employees' hours.

  3. Participants leave the organization frequently and cannot devote their time solely to a given problem. Employees, contractors and volunteers can all be considered participants.

  4. Choice opportunities are decision-making moments within the organization, such as meetings or a need to sign a new contract.

In the organization, choice opportunities are looking for problems, problems are looking for choice opportunities, solutions are looking for problems and participants are looking for work.

Decision styles

The organizational structure and the activity within each stream shape the decision style of the organization in three ways:

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