Garbage can theory

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Garbage can theory



Alternate name(s)

Garbage Can Model, Garbage Can Process

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

Net energy load, energy distribution, decision structure, problem access structure

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

Net energy load, energy distribution, decision structure, problem access structure

Concise description of theory

The Garbage Can theory, or model, attempts to explain some organizational decision-making anomalies-in particular, decision making by "organized anarchies" where preferences are not clear, technology is not clear, or participation is fluid.

Problems, solutions, and decision makers move from one choice to another depending on the mix of recognized problems, the choices available, the mix of solutions available for problems, and outside influences on the decision makers. In short, problems are uncoupled from choices giving an image of "rummaging around" inside a garbage can. Problems are addressed based on a solution choice, but choices are made based on shifting combinations of problems, solutions, and decision makers. In this sense, decision-making appears "pathological" instead of rational.

The Garbage Can theory allows problems to be addressed and choices to be made, but does not necessarily following a rational process. Poorly understood and addressed problems can drift into and out of the garbage can process, depending on the situation and factors.

Diagram/schematic of theory


Originating author(s)

Michael D. Cohen, James G. March, Johan P. Olsen

Seminal articles

Cohen, M., March, J., and Olsen, J. "A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice," Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (March, 1972), pp. 1-25.

Originating area

Organizational theory, Administrative sciences

Level of analysis


IS articles that use the theory

Boynton, A. and Zmud, R. “Information Technology Planning in the 1990’s: Directions for Practice and Research,” MIS Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 59-71, March, 1987.

Lovata, L. “Behavioral Theories Relating to the Design of Information Systems,” MIS Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 147-149, June, 1987.

Watson, R. “Influences on the IS Manager’s Perceptions of Key Issues: Information Scanning and the Relationship With the CEO,” MIS Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 217-231, June, 1990.

Collins, F. and Munter, P. “Exploring the Garbage Can: A Study of Information Flows,” Omega, Vol. 18, No. 3, p. 269, 1990.

Travica, B. and Cronin, B. “The Argo: A Strategic Information System for Group Decision Making,” International Journal of Information Management, Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 223, 1995.

Hayes, S. and McGee, P. “Garbage Can Decision Making in a Structured Anarchy for Your CWIS,” Campus-Wide Information Systems, Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 129, 1998.

Links from this theory to other theories

Chaos theory

External links

Wikipedia entry:,

Original Contributor(s)

Scott Schneberger

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