Organized Anarchies: A Garbage Can Model

Organized Anarchies, an idea explored by Cohen, March, and Olsen in Administrative Science Quarterly, are characterized by three general properties; problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation. More specifically, in situations which fail to adhere to the conditions of more classical models of decision making in some or all of three important ways: preferences are problematic, technology is unclear, or participation is fluid.

The three organizational theorist’s studied universities, a recognized form of organized anarchy, and found 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. Looking closer, the theorists created the “garbage can model” in hopes of deciphering organized anarchies

The garbage can model is one in which problems, solutions, and participants move from one choice  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 rather complicated inter meshing of elements. These elements include the variety of choices available at any point in time, the mix of problems that are afforded access to the organization, the mix of solutions looking for problems, and the outside demands on the decision makers. A major idea included of the garbage can model is the semi- uncoupling of problems and choices. Although decision making is perceived as a process for solving problems, in reality, this is not what usually occurs. Problems are tackled in the context of some choice, but choices are made only when the shifting combination of problems, solutions, and decision makers decide to make action a possible pathway.

To sum it all up, organizations operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. The own decision making processes are often not understood by their members, they operate by trial and error, their boundaries are undefined and changing, and the decision makers for any particular choice change randomly. In order to comprehend organizational development, one can view choice opportunities as garbage cans. Various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped, and the mix of garbage depends on the mix of labeled cans available. They also depend on what type garbage is produced and the speed in which garbage cans are removed.

In my paper, I will connect the ideas of Organized Anarchies, and how Enron’s highly normative organizational structure lead to misuses of power. This idea, addressed in chapter 8 of O&O, warns of how loosly regulated decision making process can lead to crime and corruption within an organization. Enron was all to familiar with this idea and is the perfect example of the dangers organized anarchy within an organization.


One Response

  1. I have a difficult time trying to see how useful Ambiguity theory or what Cohen and March call “garbage can model” is in a practical and concrete situation. If it’s possible, I would really appreciate it if you provide an example, a situation where in the garbage can model is used. Thank you.

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