Stanford University vs. Peter (INSEAD)
I only remember two things from my BIO (Behaviour in Industrial Organisations) class, many years ago at Imperial College in London. Both were mildly amusing.
The first was that lecturer thought it was wonderful that the head of my engineering department would sometimes come to work with his things in a plastic shopping bag, rather than in a smart briefcase. The rather lefty lecturer of this token, non-technical, course thought the highly paid Professor was truly “one of us” and he was demonstrating this with his choice of bag. In reality, I think he just picked up what was nearest to his front door and he just did not care if somebody saw him walking down Exhibition Road with a Tesco bag.
The second thing was the wonderful sounding “Garbage Can Model of Decision Making”. The more I read about autism on the web and in the literature, the more I think about garbage cans; so I decided to go back and see what that model was all about.
The Garbage Can Model of Decision Making
The model was dreamt up by three guys (Cohen, March & Olsen) at Stanford University in 1972, and I suppose that is a big part of why people got to hear about it. It is frequently misunderstood; I think that my lecturer at Imperial College had decided it was really about situations when you have an answer and are desperately trying to find the question. A good example of that is hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We all know it exists, but other than for deep seas divers and fighter pilots, what is it for? Well, the people who own these machines have been seeking new people to treat for decades. They have the therapy and they just need to have a diagnosis, so they try autism.
The real garbage can model seems to be more about justifying bad decision making with a fancy name.
The Stanford three started by looking at how large organizations function. They found that they operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. Technology is unclear and the participants in decision making come and go and they vary in how much time and commitment they have got. This results in organized anarchy. Sound familiar?
The garbage can model is based on the assumption that decision making is sloppy and haphazard. Decisions result from an interaction between four independent streams of events: problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities.
From the horse’s mouth (James March) in the Harvard Business Review, October 2006:-
We were operating at two levels. 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. Opportunities for choice attract all sorts of unrelated but simultaneously available problems, solutions, goals, interests, and concerns. So a meeting called to discuss parking lots may become a discussion of research plans, sexual harassment, managerial compensation, and advertising policies. Time is scarce for decision makers, though, and what happens depends on how they allocate that time to choice opportunities.
On the second level, we tried to describe the way in which organizations deal with flows of problems, solutions, and decision makers in garbage can situations. 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 our minds, the garbage can process is a very orderly process. It looks a little peculiar from some points of view, but it isn't terribly complex, and it isn't terribly jumbled. The good thing, I think, is that our perspective has opened up the possibility for people to say, "That's a garbage can process" -- meaning it's an understandable process in which things are connected by their simultaneous presence more than by anything else, even though they look all mixed-up.
So what does this tell us?
Well I think on the one hand, it is a complete load of nonsense; but on the other hand, it seems an all too familiar unstructured, ill-defined approach that means problems do not get solved properly and so bad things do not get changed.
It also helps explain why most successful organisations are not democratic at all, they have much more in common with dictatorships; but at least they get things done.
Peter’s Garbage Can Model of Autism Research
Don’t get me wrong, there is some truly excellent research; but there could be a lot more and it could be far better coordinated and integrated. Here is my garbage can model.