Choices, Credibility & Cans

I shared a copy of my new book with a colleague and good friend of mine. This is always an interesting and anxiety-producing exercise—one of the fundamental principles of writing is that once you release it into the world, it is no longer yours.

You do not control it, you can no longer shape it and you have no influence over how people will read, react or respond to it. This is why, as a general rule, you should never go and read the comments.

At the same time, it’s fascinating to re-experience things through someone else’s eyes. One of the insights that my friend found most fascinating is something that I can barely remember including. My book is about decision making, and specifically how we make strategic project initiation choices. I start the book with a discussion about what we already know about how decisions are made in general, and the insights this may offer to how this specific type of decisions is made.

One model that garnered a mention is known as ‘the garbage can theory.’ First described in a paper written in 1972 by Michael Cohen, James March and Johan Olsen, the theory has won more than a little notoriety in its time. Allegedly inspired by (and possibly more than a little bit cynical about) how decisions are made in a university environment, the paper turns decision making on its head. More specifically, it emphasizes an uncoupling of problems from choices, throwing both into a can with whatever else happens to be around at the time to see what sticks to what.

The garbage can model is a radical expansion on the idea that organizations do not have fully consistent goals, and therefore that decisions are made with less alignment, consistency and rational thought than might be presumed or seen as inherently desirably. One of my favourite quotes from the paper describes an organization as “…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, and decision makers looking for work.” James March elaborated on this in an interview in HBR, when he said, “On one level, we were saying that choice is fundamentally ambiguous. There is a lot of uncertainty and confusion that isn’t well represented by standard theories of decision making.”

In the garbage can, the traditional ends-means model of decision making gets chucked out. In its place is a model that approximates organized anarchy. In the eyes of Cohen et al, decisions are made when problems, solutions and decision makers happen to be in the same space at the same time, with enough energy to get something resolved. It is not a requirement that the solution is good, valid or in anyway related to the problem at hand. A decision is made, the participants move on, and someone is left to pick up the pieces.

The writers go on to describe the basis of how problems and decisions intersect: “The mix of garbage in a single can depends on the mix of cans available, on the labels attached to the alternative cans, on what garbage is currently being produced, and on the speed with which garbage is collected and removed from the scene.” There is a delightfully Dilbert-ian dimension to the ideas embraced by the garbage can model. It takes very little effort to imagine the model at work in reality, particularly in politically dysfunctional environments where confident bluster is considered a valid substitute for reason and expertise. We have all witnessed the garbage can model in action. Many of us have been victims of it. A few of us may bear the guilt of having been instigators.

While from one perspective the garbage can model can be viewed with equal measures of humour and tragedy, it can also actually provide a dimension of usefulness and even usability. Sometimes we need to simply make decisions. They don’t need to be good decisions. In the same HBR interview, March commented, “The central ideas were that a link between a problem and a solution depends heavily on the simultaneity of their “arrivals,” that choices depend on the ways in which decision makers allocate time and energy to choice opportunities, that choice situations can easily become overloaded with problems, and that choices often can be made only after problems (and their sponsors) have moved to other decision arenas and thus typically are not resolved.”

In this context, decisions reflect the flow of problems, solutions and decisions makers into decision making situations. It is less about problems finding good solutions so much as it is about finding any solutions. The model in part implies that in some situations, the effort of trying to make a good decision far outweighs the benefit of having done so. The simple act of choosing what to have for dinner, for example, can be in some instances debilitating. We don’t know what we want, we just need to eat. In such a situation, any decision that leads to food happening might be considered a good one. Sometimes we simply need to match up a solution, a problem and a decision maker, and gently encourage them to leave the scene.

At other times, however, we need not just a good decision but also a timely one. Our frequent response to risk and uncertainty, however, is to avoid making a decision, or at least to defer for a period of time. In times of crisis in particular, there is a very great need for timely decision making, and not simply finding the best solution. Decisions must often be made with imperfect information, but they must nonetheless be made. The garbage can model tells us that creating an environment in which decisions occur means that we need to increase pace, focus and attention. We need to increase the likelihood that problems, solutions, decision makers and opportunities will intersect with enough energy to take action. It’s not only about finding a good decision, but also making sure that the opportunities for decision can and do occur. In such circumstances, we need to go beyond ends and means; time matters.

I recall the delight with which I first encountered the paper, and the concepts it contained. I appreciated—and still appreciate—the creativity, the sense of play and the clear enjoyment that the authors brought to their writing. They were not only willing to challenge convention, they eagerly embraced the opportunity to do so. It has been a while since I reflected on the model, or reviewed the paper. So I am grateful to my friend Peter for creating the serendipitous opportunity to consciously reflect on it once again, and to inspire me to share it here with you.

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