Garbage Can Safety
Imagine two colleagues talking:
Colleague A: “What about that issue with [a certain risk]?
Colleague B: The boss should send our teams to my new VR-training, so they’ll become risk-aware!
Colleague A: I think we should rather ask Peter Fountain to come and talk at our safety event –he’s an expert on this after all.
Colleague B: You know what? Let’s call a team meeting first.”
In organizations, problems and solutions converge based on the simultaneous attendance of certain people rather than by logical analysis. James March called this the garbage can model of organizational choice. When they are handed these kind of “solutions”, decision-makers typically respond as either enthusiasts, pragmatists, or reformers. Notably, decision-makers must have sufficient energy to address associated problems. When the agenda is already overfull, and it’s almost lunchtime, it’s not the best time to pitch your favorite solution to an emerging problem..
Most choices, March noted, are made without addressing problems or by resolving them at a different time, when the system load is light. Important problems tend to find resolution in decision-making arenas, while problems labeled as “unimportant” might linger. Social norms, organizational structures, and access limitations impact how problems, solutions, and decision-makers interact with choice opportunities.
This picture is certainly not painted too grim if we look at consulting. Consultants might avoid confronting clients with uncomfortable truths, preferring safe, rational suggestions that don't challenge the deeper issues at play. Clients often seek affirmation rather than true innovation. Organizations sometimes rely on keynote speakers and external sources for solutions; by this they avoid personal accountability and choose easy, entertaining answers over genuine transformation and introspection. This avoidance leads to a cycle of seeking the next ‘big idea’ without fully internalizing or implementing the previous ones, contributing to the feeling of constant fads in organizational change efforts.
What about that team meeting then? Many meetings are organized primarily around the questions of who will speak and what will they say. This focus on speakers and their Powerpoint slides sidelines the engagement, accountability, and individual participation necessary for genuine transformation.
What can we do instead? First of all, a systemic understanding of problems is needed. This involves multi-level stakeholders in defining solutions. When asking questions, make them meaningful; ambiguous instead of closed questions encourage self-reflection and personal engagement in meetings.
Block, P. (2001), The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook & Companion, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
March, J.G. (1994), A Primer on Decision Making – How Decisions Happen, New York: The Free Press.