Organized Anarchies - Five major properties of decision-making

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Organized anarchies represent a fundamental concept in the larger garbage can theory of organizations, and have been characterized by problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation (Cohen, March & Olsen, 1972).

Educational researchers Michael D. Cohen and James G. March, argue that American colleges and universities represent a prototypical organized anarchy (1974). Specifically, they described institutions of higher education as “many autonomous actors operating with bounded rationality in an environment with ambiguous goals, an unclear link between cause and effect, and fluid participation with the activities and subgroups of the organization.”

They further describe five major properties of decision-making in organized anarchies that are of substantial importance to the tactics of accomplishing things in colleges and universities.

1) Low Salience

According to Cohen and March (1991), decisions in colleges and universities “secure only partial and erratic attention from participants in the organization” (p. 406). They argue that it is the superficial connotation of an issue that has relevance and is the subject of consideration rather that the real content and its ramifications.

2) High Inertia

This characteristic highlights the cumbersome and inflexible nature of organizations such as universities. Inertia emphasizes the difficulty of coordinating change in a complex and interdependent system where the tendency is to allow things to remain as they are and always have been rather than engage in the process of innovation and/or reform.

3) Garbage Can

This property reflects the tendency to conglomerate problems and current issues rather than address the relevant issue independent of other agendas. Work on a particular issue or decision often becomes another forum for an overriding topic.

4) Overload

Due to the nature of the university organization (i.e., organized anarchy) and the complex interrelations therein, issues up for discussion or resolution often become convoluted with an endless variety of perspectives. Therefore, the distinction between the process and the content becomes obscure.

5) Weak Information

It is an age old cliche that if we do not learn from history then we are destined to repeat it. However, in this future-oriented, fast-paced society most large organizations in the process of looking to progress forward rarely look back to make decisions based on the solid foundation previously laid. Additionally, Cohen and March (1991) point out that typically one does not have all the necessary information to make a completely informed decision at the time the decision is necessary.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash


Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G. (1974). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G (1991). Leadership in an Organized Anarchy. In Peterson, M. W. (Ed.), Organization and governance in higher education, 4e. New York: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing.

Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G.; Olsen, J.P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative Science Quarterly. 17 (1): 1–25. doi:10.2307/2392088

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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