Of Garbage Cans and Paradox: Reflexively Reviewing Design, Mission Command, and the Gray Zone

Grant Martin


As a rule-following organization, the military both suffers and benefits from bureaucracy. One of the negative characteristics of bureaucracy is the co-opting of innovation. This co-option results in the dismantling of ideas and the re-wickering of innovative tools into something unworkable or at cross-purposes to their original intent. To make sense of this we first must look at the concept of paradox and understand that what we observe is not irrational or abnormal: paradox is the rule in how human institutions behave. Second, there are ways with which to make sense of paradox. Next, one example is provided, applying the Garbage Can Model of Decision Making to some of the military’s examples of paradox. Lastly, I use these insights to describe how organizations co-opt new ideas. This concept could allow military professionals to understand what happens to new ideas and why they happen so that they can anticipate co-option’s negative effects.


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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.