The Garbage Can Model

The garbage can model is an organizational theory which states, roughly, that decision making occurs when problems, solutions, and participants come together in alignment to form opportunities, but that problems, solutions, and participants exist independent of one another in a jumble or stream of activity.  This theory, in case it isn’t obvious, describes what observers see, not what they think should be.  For example, just as people have “pet projects,” i.e. problems they want to solve, they also have “pet theories,” i.e. solutions they want to try but can’t until they find a problem to go with it.

As I read about this theory in my Public Organization course, I couldn’t help but think about the ways many writers market their work.  They struggle with problems.  They dabble with solution.  They reach out to people.  They look for opportunities that will allow them to put these pieces together in a way that enhances their marketability.  It’s all jumbled up together as if the entirety of their marketing plan is thrown into a food processor and the writer is just hoping something “edible” comes out of it.

Now, going back to organizational theory, in the realm of what should be, organizational theorists propose a variety of strategic management systems.  These decision making systems do not deny the reality observed in the form of the garbage can model.  They recognize that reality and attempt to exert a greater level of control over the decision making process by deciding what the organization wants to accomplish and using the opportunities that arise to move the organization closer to achieving these predetermined goals.  By overlaying a layer of strategy over what is otherwise, essentially, chaos, managers exert their control—however much or however little that control may be—over the outcome.  This way the organization doesn’t get side-tracked by an opportunity that has no strategic value.

This fits very nicely in how I see the effective marketing of a writer’s work.  Frankly, most writers lack the resources to exert system-changing control in the marketplace.  Most of us, sadly, are rummaging through the garbage can, trying to turn the scraps we find into a meal.  By overlaying a layer of strategy over the chaos through marketing planning—choosing dumpsters over garbage cans, picking prime spots for what we like best, etc.—we can adjust things in order for them to work in our favor.  But we still cannot actually control the results.

This is why marketing plans should include ready-to-implement contingencies.  This is also why marketing plans need to be flexible and changeable, so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arise, but only as long as they move you in the right direction and have strategic value.  This is why it’s essential to take the time to understand your work and your market and yourself, so you know what does and what does not have strategic value.  With enough strategy, planning, and time, you won’t have to live out of the garbage can at all, let alone settle for whatever can happens to be at hand.

(Sorry for the late post!)

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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