What if thinking about your company like a trash can could make you a better manager and a calmer person?  Better listen up, sanitation engineers!

Show Notes

Organizations move slowly, until they don’t. They resist change, until they can’t. Why? On this episode of Management Muse we discuss an unusual—and unusually powerful—way of thinking about organizations…like they are trash cans! Hosts Cindi Baldi and Geoffrey Tumlin talk about one of the greatest management papers you’ve never read: “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” the classic article written by Michael D. Cohen, James G. March, and Johan P. Olsen.

As crazy as it sounds, the trashcan model of organizations makes a lot of sense: Organizations are messy and chaotic. There’s a lot of different issues inside them, and occasionally the contents spill out and come into full visibility. Grab your flashlight; it’s time to climb into the trashcan.

Episode Highlights:

  • Organizations aren’t efficient like computers, they are messy and somewhat unpredictable like trashcans.
  • Do you feel unheard? Like your ideas are neglected? Don’t take it personally. It’s a garbage can out there, and you have to reach in, grab the item you care about, and champion it.
  • Organizational change often happens on its own timeline, but smart managers can often spot moments to push, and times to back off.


[0:00] Cindi and Geoff talk about key managerial lessons from the garbage can model.

[4:00] The hosts discuss championing your ideas in a garbage can environment.

[6:00] Cindi and Geoff talk about floating ideas up and outside of the trashcan.

[8:25] The hosts talk about using your time and energy in the trashcan wisely.

[9:20] Geoff and Cindi cover the ways that Covid knocked over many trashcans, and created numerous opportunities for change.

[14:00] The hosts explore how external shocks often lead to big changes.

[17:12] Geoff and Cindi talk about using the garbage can model to help people improve their organizations.

[25:10] Cindi and Geoff talk about making change happen with limited time and other resources.

[28:00] The hosts cover two scenarios that prompt change in a garbage can world:

  • Something internal or external knocks over the trashcan, revealing messes that require attention.
  • Someone external takes the lid off, raises a flag, and forces action.

[37:00] Why it’s so humbling to try changing an organization. No matter what you think you know or which methodology you deploy, it’s a trashcan out there. The process is messy, so when an opening emerges, don’t hesitate to seize what might be a sacred opportunity.

[38:32] Geoff and Cindi talk about what’s in the trashcan and what can be done to evolve the organization.

[43:30] In closing, Geoff ticks off the three best things to come from the 1970s:

  • Garbage Can Model
  • Disco
  • Cindi

Episode Quotes:

“It’s humbling to try to change an organization because no matter what you think you know or what methodology you’re following that seems to have all the answers, it’s a trashcan out there. It’s just not going to be clean.” –Geoffrey Tumlin

“At the lower end, you really have to be able to build a coalition, go up the chain. There’s still a lot of work that you have to do if you decide that it’s really important and it’s a much longer, harder process because you’re that much further away from the actual decision-makers.” –Cindi Baldi

 “The diapers in the trashcan are pretty easy to find. How we order them by priority is a little harder. And then the actual strategy to make sure our trashcan is positioned to be the best trashcan on the street for the next three or four years is possibly the hardest of all. You keep pushing farther and farther out into the unknown.” –Geoffrey Tumlin

“You plant the seed and build some support. But don’t be surprised if there are periods of time where you’re buckling down and doing something else. You’re looking for your moment. Nothing actually happens all that fast in an organization. Until it does.” –Cindi Baldi

Episode Resources:

Would you like to read the original article? Here it is: “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” by Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen.




KW: Leadership, change, change agent, organization, organizational, business, adoption, consulting, consultant, process, decision maker, decision making, stakeholders, corporate, chaos, reorganization.