The Garbage Can Method
It’s still garbage in, garbage out
Fifteen years ago, I’d make a sweaty summer evening ride down the Yonge Line on the TTC and head to an overly chilled classroom to attend a seminar on Organizational Behaviour. Of the eight courses that made up Ryerson’s Project Management certificate, this course was the only one that didn’t end in the word “management” and was also the most interesting.
In a few classes, we covered decision making and this turned on many lights in my head about how people are influenced. At the time, I was faced with dozens of decisions I had to make around real estate investments and was looking for a methodology. The Garbage Can Method appealed most because it freed me from looking at analytics. Just soak in all the inputs, sit with them a little bit, and then make a decision.
However, I’ve changed my mind on the Garbage Can method. Why? Because it relies heavily on intuition and intuition, while lauded in CEO biographies, is usually wrong when it comes to multivariable problems. These decisions are usually just guesses at best or come from extreme cognitive biases.
Yes, there is a place for intuition. Gavin de Becker, an author who also runs a security firm and wrote the book The Gift of Fear talks about using intuition in situations that involve personal security. A sideways glance? Trust your gut.
However, for figuring out which features to prioritize on a product roadmap? Intuition in these situations is just trying to avoid the cognitive dissonance of an original hypothesis being wrong. This is where a methodology like Design Thinking shines. You can get a sampling of whether customers or the market actually appreciate a direction you’re taking. Working with Design Thinking has evolved me from the Garbage Can Method, especially when customers metaphorically slap you in the face telling you how much you got it wrong.
Several interviews and books by Michael Lewis have cementing my abandonment of the Garbage Can. In baseball, team coaches relied on their intuition but like it was documented in Moneyball, the Oakland A’s used analytics in their decision making and were able to purchase better performing players.
Being open to being wrong is probably the best first step towards making better decisions. I add the word “probably” just in case I’m wrong about this.