Understanding exactly how you come to a decision is a complex undertaking. Understanding how organizations make decisions is even more challenging! However, when you understand how organizations make decisions you can lead more effectively.
Both effective and ineffective organizations make decisions. What is of interest to organizational leaders is understanding whether their decision making processes lead them to make good or bad choices. Organizational anarchy is a term used to describe organizations that have a poor decision-making environment. This model gives us a means of discovering how to avoid bad decisions. Researchers have discovered that organizational anarchies share three common ingredients.
- Unclear goals. The organization operates with a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined goals. In lieu of having goals, organizational anarchies are driven by a loose collection of ideas. Lacking a coherent structure, they discover their preferences after they act. They fail to base their choices and actions on intentional goals (Cohen, March & Olsen).
- The antidote to this anarchy is achieved by goal definition. Clearly defined and consistent goals eliminate ambiguity.
- Non-existent or ambiguous processes. In organizational anarchies processes are not understood by members. Instead, they operate on the basis of simple trial-and-error procedures. These procedures are not intentional but rather, are the residue of learning from the past experience or accidents, and are sometimes pragmatic inventions of necessity (Cohen, March & Olsen).
- The antidote to this anarchy is achieved through process clarity. How, when and where things should be done decreases these harmful practices and the tendency to recreate the wheel.
- Poorly-defined roles. In organizational anarchies employees vary in the amount of time and effort they devote. This creates fluidity or an inconsistent state. When the roles of an organization are uncertain and changing we struggle with accountability and execution (Cohen, March & Olsen).
- The antidote to this anarchy is role definition. Determining who is responsible for what combats the tendency to let things slide or wait for someone else to do it.
Most of us have worked in situations that can be described as an organizational anarchy. In fact, organizational anarchy will describe a portion of almost any organizations activities (Cohen, March & Olsen). However, the model of organizational anarchy presents us with a simple litmus test to examine our decision-making culture. Understanding the ingredients of healthy organizations is not complex. However, they are much more difficult to implement. But drifting into organizational anarchy is a much higher price to pay than the cost of investing in goal definition, process clarity and role definition.
Jeff Suderman is an anti-anarchist, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman
A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen.
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The Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice: An Agent-based Reconstruction. Alessandro Lomim and Guido Fioretti. Simulation Modelling Practice and Theory – Volume 16, Issue 2 (February 2008), pp. 192–217.