Organized Anarchies - Eight tactical rules for influencing the decision-making process

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 suggest eight tactical rules appropriate for those who wish to influence the decision-making process in organized anarchies, particularly those in higher education.

1) Spend Time

According to Cohen and March (1991), energy is a necessary resource in the process of influencing change in a university or college and those willing to expend energy will be granted a significant portion of control in the decision-making process.

2) Persist

The authors insist that acceptance of a particular proposal is dependent upon a complex interaction of factors within a certain context. As such, the same or similar proposal may be rejected at one time and accepted at a later date. Thus, both reintroducing ideas previously rejected and continuing to pursue accepted proposals is necessary to ensure their success.

3) Exchange Status for Substance

This rule encourages increasing the salience of the substantive issues rather than pursuing social recognition and status benefits. Cohen and March argue that focusing on the truly substantive issues will, in the long run, constitute real power and influence.

4) Facilitate Opposition Participation

Cohen and March suggest, “extending the range of legitimate participation in the decision-making process of the organization . . .” (1991, p. 407) in order to include as participants those individuals who would otherwise be antagonists. In this way, direct involvement of potential dissidents will provide them with a more realistic and cooperative view toward change.
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5) Overload the System

The authors designate “overload” as both a property and a tactic. As a tactic, overload represents an opportunity push through one’s agenda (or at least a portion of it) based on the inability of opponents to thoroughly consider a large number of actions simultaneously. Thus, by increasing the volume it follows that a significant number of proposals are accepted without being scrutinized.

6) Provide Garbage Cans

This tactic also represents one of the considered properties and works to reformulate it into an advantage. It is based in the notion that unrelated issues become associated simply by their occurrence together in time and therefore in the social consciousness, regardless of whether the connection is relevant. The authors suggest that by providing a broad arena (the “garbage can”) for addressing the relatively unrelated but nonetheless visible concern, the path can be cleared for consideration of the pertinent issue without the extra “garbage” associated.

7) Manage Unobtrusively

Cohen and March (1991) refer to this tactic as “using high-leverage minor actions to produce major effects” (p. 409). They consider this the opportunity to expend the smallest amount of attention and energy while still achieving the desired results by indirectly making use of the organizational processes.

8) Interpret History

This tactic calls to action the basic principle using lessons of history as a basis for current action. It calls for consistency based on thoughtful analysis of the past.


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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