Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University

Edward G. Rozycki, Widener University, Retired

March and Olsen(1) describe organizations, including schools, as a collection of solutions looking for a problem.  In other words, schools have established problem solving routines, policies and personnel. And there is a predisposition to apply them willy nilly, whether or not they are the most appropriate. If we only have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. 

March and Olsen also find that organizational power holders give short shrift to problems they perceive as either “big” or “small.” Instead of struggling to find solutions, they respond with civil inattention, or one or another verbal sedative such as “we’ll look into it.”

So what sort of concerns are “big” problems so far as organizational power holders are concerned? Ones where change:

  • threatens their interests;
  • involves substantial reallocations of costs and benefits;

Plus nothing is going to happen if power holders cannot not agree on a solution.

Organizational power holders regard concerns as “small,” i.e., not worth bothering with, when:

  • they do not think their interests are being threatened.

Remember, problems are someone’s concerns. So whose concerns is vitally important. Similarly, solutions are someone’s product waiting to be applied to something. Here again whose product it is, is vital to whether it will be employed. Finally, participants in the problem solving are usually those, within the organization, who happen to be available. And that often pertains whether or not they actually are equipped to solve the problem.

It’s important to emphasize that none of this pertains if a school is managed democratically. But it’s a rare school that is truly democratic. Most are top-down, monocratic organizations where all “garbage can” considerations apply.


1 James G. March and Johan P. Olen. Ambiguity and Choice (Bergen Universitetsforlaget, 1976).