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The Garbage Can Model

An article presenting one of the worst decision-making processes that people still use as an example of what not to do.
The so called “Garbage Can model” is one of the worst decision-making processes. Despite this, it is unfortunately still used by people quite commonly. By understanding how the model works we can better understand how some organizations make their decisions.

The model lacks structure and gets its name from the fact that all problems and solutions are placed in the same place or “garbage can”. The model gives a so called organized anarchy within which organizations are characterized by problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation.

Such an organization can be viewed as:

  • A collection of choices, i.e., decisions, 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
  • Decision makers looking for work

An organization using the Garbage Can model suffers from the following:

  • Problematic preferences: The organization operates based on a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences
  • Unclear technology: The organization operates processes that are not understood by its employees and other processes operate in a trial-and-error manner
  • Fluid participation: The decision-makers for any kind of choice change impulsively and unpredictably

To understand the processes within the organizations that use the garbage can model, you can view an opportunity where they should make a choice as a garbage can, into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped by the participants as they are generated. The mix of garbage in a single can depends on the mix of cans available, what garbage is currently produced, and the speed at which garbage is collected and removed from the can.

garbage can model visualised

At the garbage can-modeled organization, decision-making becomes sloppy and haphazard. Certainly, this is a situation that organizations should strive to avoid.

© Luleå University of Technology
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