Garbage In, Garbage Out: The Garbage Can Solutions Model

The children’s story “Alice in Wonderland clearly identifies the paradigm of the Garbage Can Solution model. When Alice meets the ever-elusive Cheshire Cat they have this conversation:

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.

`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

The question is if SOMEWHERE is the right place.

“Entrepreneurship is […]a way of thinking that emphasizes opportunities over threats,” according to strategic thinkers such as Krueger, Reilly and Carsrud. The “somewhere” alluded to by Alice can be either threatening or opportunistic for an entrepreneur. It can also be both. The trick is to know the difference.

The “Garbage Can Model” is one tool that is often used by entrepreneurs. The garbage can model is one where all of the entrepreneur’s historical decisions and solutions are thrown into a metaphorical can. When a problem arises, the entrepreneur is able to reach into the can to find a solution to their current problem. We see this often with serial entrepreneurs who look to their past success to solve a different set of problems. This has also been referred to as the sophomore jinx.

Traditionally, the Garbage Can Solution model describes the accidental or random confluence of four streams. A number of academics believe that decision making occurs in a random meeting of: choices looking for problems, problems looking for choices, solutions looking for problems to answer and decision makers looking for something to decide.”

In fact, one well known academic questions the validity of this particular model when she asks, “Does the garbage can model describe actual decision making or is it simply a labeling of the unexplained variance of other, more powerful, descriptions of strategic decision making?”

Additionally, does the garbage can take into account our existing bias based decisions? If we fall back on choices that worked for us in the past, does that mean they will work for us today? Do we need to solely rely on what is currently in our leaders’ bag of tricks to creatively develop new ideas, solutions, or products?

In more establish organizations, famous social scientists Cyert & March tell us that “Exogenous, time dependent arrivals of choice opportunities, problems, solutions and decision makers” are thrown together so that any solution can be associated with any choice. Never a good way to approach decision-making. What they are alluding to is that solutions, problems are often thrown together from previous experience with the hope that the right problem hooks up with the right solution. With unlimited resources and time, this may result in relevant information.

However, is the time-constrained, resource scarce environment of the entrepreneur an appropriate place to utilize this model? This is exactly where entrepreneurs slip. In seeking repeatable processes, creativity is lost. All start-ups should look to the creative solution making process as much as possible.

The answer, as usual, is it depends. Although The Garbage Can Model is not a rational method of strategic thinking, there is significant research backing up this school of thought on decision-making. On first look, this is not a particularly creative approach, nor is it direct and focused on finding specific problems and solutions. By definition the Garbage Can model of decision-making assumes that nothing new is added. The only items in the can are what has already been done or considered. It is history rather than innovation that drives this approach.

However, the creative entrepreneur is not focused on what’s already in the garbage can, but rather what the entrepreneur could be doing to add to the can in order to make rational, novel, and strategic decisions. Unfortunately, for many entrepreneurs, the right solution never gets added to the mix of ideas, problems and solutions.

The best response for entrepreneurs is to find creative answers for their start-ups that are removed as much as possible from prior bias. In order to accomplish this, entrepreneurs must be exploratory and experiential, note boundary limits and consciously develop an environment where all parties involved in the project have a strong, relevant voice. This assures more team buy in to the project. Eliminate power plays and look for the important breaks in typical industry patterns.

So get out of the building, find customer data (however imperfect it may be) and go somewhere. Whether your team decides to dumpster dive or not, I will leave that up to you. However, you should be aware of the upside and limitations for utilizing this business model in your start-up.

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5 thoughts on “Garbage In, Garbage Out: The Garbage Can Solutions Model

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    • Sometimes old solutions will not work with new problems. We can borrow techniques from negotiation strategies, and go to deep learning to find the root problem. What is really required to solve the problem rather than the presenting symptom? Only then can entrepreneurs get creative to obtain creative and satisfying results.

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