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Managing Organized Anarchies Published: Sunday, June 1, 2003 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

There are some organizations that resemble a kind of organized anarchy, a term used by the very distinguished professors Michael D. Cohen and James G. March, to describe organizations characterized by ambiguities regarding their mission, strategy, power relationships, and evaluation of performance. In an organized anarchy, the following conditions exit:

Most issues, most of the time have a low salience for most of the people. Professionals are not all interested in what goes on organizationally. The system has high inertia. Nothing requiring organized efforts either to start or to stop is likely to be started or stopped. Any decision can become a “garbage can” for any other issue. Whether it happens depends on what alternative arenas or “garbage’s” exist for handling the problem when it arrives. A garbage is an organizational domain or context where decisions are made by flight or oversight, because they are very sensitive to changes in load.

The point is that within these organizations processes are easily overloaded, and as the load builds, decision outcomes become increasingly separated from formal mechanisms. It is typical that these organizations have a weak information about past decisions and memory or information is hard to retain or retrieve.

The management of organized anarchy systems is best accomplished by implementing some rules. 1) Spend time – decision making situations within these environments require formidable amount of deployed energy in order to achieve results. 2) Persist – it is a mistake to assume that if a particular proposal has been rejected today, it will be rejected tomorrow. Leaders will have to show a tremendous amount of stamina and tenacity if they are truly aiming at making a difference within this type of institution. 3) Exchange status for substance – specific substantive issues have low salience for participants. A typical situation is one in which significant numbers participants and group of participants care less about specific substance outcome than they do about the implications of that outcome for their own social recognition. 4) Facilitate opposition participation – in an organization characterized by high inertia the direct involvement of dissident groups in decision – making processes is an effective depressant of institutional goals and objectives. 5) Overload the system – the style of decision-making changes when the loads exceed the capacity of the system. 6) Provide garbage can – decision-making process becomes intertwined with a variety of other issues reducing the capacity of the system to perform. 7) Manage obstructively – use high leverage minor actions to produce mayor effects, and let the system go where it wants to go with only minor interventions. 8) Interpret history – in an organization in which most issues have low salience, and information about events are poorly maintained, definitions of what is happening and what has happened become important tactical instruments.

From this perspective, a challenge for leadership is to manage ambiguity.


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