Organizational Decision Making as
Playing Soccer inside Garbage Cans

An organization is

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.

One can view a choice opportunity as a garbage can into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped by participants as they are generated.

Cohen, March and Olsen. 1972. A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1): p. 2


Taken in broad perspective, the four case studies we have examined suggest the following possible metaphor for decision making within a university.

Consider a round, sloped, multi-goal soccer field on which individuals play soccer.

Many different people (but not everyone) can join the game (or leave it) at different times.

Some people can throw balls into the game or remove them. Individuals while they are in the game try to kick whatever ball comes near them in the direction of goals they like and away from goals that they wish to avoid.

The slope of the field produces a bias in how the balls fall and what goals are reached, but the course of a specific decision and the actual outcomes are not easily anticipated. After the fact, they may look rather obvious; and usually normatively reassuring.

March and Olsen 1976. Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. p. 276