Problems, solutions, actors in a garbage can: how do we stir up the connections?

Research on decision making has been of interest to me for some time now. And, during my advise and consulting, I have come across a large number of entrepreneurs and managers struggling to make decisions, remain consistent in their decisions and make hard commitments to their decisions, as well as take ownership for the consequences of the decisions. I propose that such “under-decisiveness” (not being comfortable with their decision) is due to their inability to explain to themselves why and how their decisions are right (or appropriate). Some great research on this has been done in the past, and I would draw upon some insights from behavioural science research on decision making, some Indian philosophy, and some neuroscience. In this post, I introduce to my readers the concept of garbage can decision making, and its implications for managers and entrepreneurs.

Aha moments, first

In their recent article, David Rock and Josh Davis (Four steps to have more ‘Aha’ moments), urge decision makers to take breaks from the act of decision-making to make better decisions. In other words, sleep with your problems (no, I am not implying anything about your spouse!). The argument is that taking a break helps in (a) noticing quiet signals, (b) look inward, (c) take a positive approach, and (d) use less effort.

Quiet signals have been talked about in decision making literature in the past (almost the same as weak signals – I am not aware if quiet signals are any different). One of the best articles I have read recently about working with weak signals appeared at the MIT Sloan Management Review (How to make sense of weak signals). To summarise that article, Shoemaker and Day (the authors) urge us to follow nine approaches (see the exhibit in the article): 1) tap local intelligence, 2) leverage extended networks, 3) mobilise search parties, 4) test multiple hypotheses, 5) canvass the wisdom of the crowd, 6) develop diverse scenarios, 7) confront early, 8) encourage constructive conflict, and 9) trust seasoned intuition. If you would rather read a lighter article on how organisations can tap into weak signals, you may read what appeared in the McKinsey Quarterly (read here). The bottomline – listen more; listen to diverse sets of people; actively listen to conflicting views, and proactively build listening mechanisms and routines in your role/ function/ organisation.

To look inwards is easier said than done. Busy executives need to take their time easy. To quote my favourite analogy, which car needs more maintenance – the car that is been driven around between Whitefield and Bannerghatta Road in Bangalore, or the one that is being driven around a formula one track? The competitive formula one driver, driving at 300 kmph (or thereabouts) competing with other fast cars needs much more periodic pit stops than the car that is averaging about 6 kmph (okay, maybe 9 kmph), right? They busier you are, the more you need to take breaks. Taking breaks is not easy – you need to keep your mind active, right. That is where an active pursuit of another ‘activity’ is important. Build an alternative thing to do – I am not using the word ‘hobby’ deliberately. Build an activity that interests you, that you are passionate about. Something that motivates you enough to schedule your work and the ‘activity’ with relatively equal importance. One of my batchmates runs an internet aggregator, as well as competes in the triathlon. One another is a CEO by the day and a fiction writer by the evening. One another colleague of mine trains for marathons in the evening, is Dean for part of his time, and is Professor for the rest of the day.

I don’t need to elaborate about taking a positive approach. Enough research done about it. Using less effort is almost a summary of what is been said already. Take a break, do something else, listen to your own self, and then get back to the problem. You’ll be able to decide better. However, my thesis is that just these are not sufficient – it is like saying that by doing all of these (listening to more people, diverse people, yourself, and taking breaks) you will be able to improve your decision-making. I argue that it is also important to actively make the connections between data (collected through listening), insights (collected through listening to yourself), criteria (oops, we haven’t talked about it yet), and implementation plans (yes, yes, we will talk about this too).

Garbage can model of decision-making

Before we go into the process of what I call active decision-making, we need to understand the ‘garbage can’ model of decision making. Yes, you read it right, the garbage can! Way back in 1972, Cohen, March and Olsen wrote a classic article in the Administrative Science Quarterly, titled A garbage can model of organisational choice (read the abstract here). The primary argument is that decision-making is not as neat as it is taught in the first few sessions of your MBA curriculum, but it is much like a garbage can. In a garbage can, where actors (decision-makers) are looking for work; problems are looking for solutions; and solutions are looking for problems and decision-makers. Solutions are not created from ground up, but are available within the system; it is the active seeking by the decision-maker to match problems with solutions that matters most.

They label organisations as organised anarchies, characterised by problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation. In other words, organisations do not have clear priorities of projects and actions, unstable or immature processes, and there is a large (noncommittal) silent majority in every organisational decision making setting. Does it ring a bell? A lot of organisations have stated strategy, but the specific decisions made at the field do not reflect the organisation strategy; our organisational processes can do with a lot of discipline and consistency; and in every meeting there is only 20% people contributing to 80% of the voice.

Active decision-making

When we agree that organisations are indeed organised anarchies; and decision-making therefore reflects garbage cans, we need to work on making the connections actively, proactively.

Criteria is the first thing we need to focus on. Organisation’s strategy is one thing – every organisation claims to have one. Does the organisation actively translate the intent/ purpose and strategy into actionable criteria. I know of a variety or organisations where a lot of middle managers (and sometimes even senior managers) cannot translate the organisation’s purpose (or intent) into actionable priorities. when I ask them what their priorities in the next few years are, most of them cannot go beyond simple parameters like growth and profitability; and even if some of them do, very few of them understand why such actions are their priority. So, the first thing you need to is ensure that your organisation vision and strategy is translated into visible priorities and criteria for decision-making. In great organisations, every program, every decision, every initiative reflects their strategy and purpose.

Implementability is another under-rated aspect of decision-making. Every decision need to be implemented. One of my colleagues used to remark – effective decision making is when the decision-maker can take ownership for the consequences of the decision. Which means, the decision-maker should ensure that the decisions are implemented efficiently. Which means that the decision-making has to take into account the contextual realities right at the criteria and option-definition stages.



In summary, active decision-making requires the decision-makers to become both efficient and effective in their decision-making. Efficiency of decision-making is about the process of decision-making and effectiveness refers to the success of the decision. In order to ensure that good decisions balance efficiency and effectiveness, decision-makers need to pay sufficient attention to criteria/ options (effectiveness) as well as be aware of garbage can models, weak signals, sleeping over thoughts, active breaks (efficiency).

So, managers and entrepreneurs, even if you are muddling through, please balance efficiency and effectiveness of decision-making.

(c) Prof. R Srinivasan, 2016.



Author: Srinivasan R

Professor of Corporate Strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. All views are personal. The views and opinions expressed here are of the author, and not those of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore; and are not intended to endorse, harm, malign, or defame any individual, group, or organisation.

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