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Making sense out of nonsense: A garbage can model of organizational change.

Bertels, H.M.J. Making sense out of nonsense: A garbage can model of organizational change.


In this paper I theorize about the underlying processes leading to inertia versus adaptability in established firms. This is achieved through linking theories of evolution, institutions, complexity, and sensemaking. I argue that for organizations to become aware of the present irrelevance of what they have started to take for granted, they need to “make nonsense” i.e. they need to feel a disconnection between their institutionalized expectations and perceived data. Only those things that lead to nonsense making can lead to the transforming of institutions because the process of sensemaking happens within an institutionalized setting i.e. sense is made collectively when actual and expected reality coalesce and hence there is no need for change. More nonsense making leads to greater potential for consciousness about the contemporary unfit of established institutions. Organizations can pro-actively create more nonsense making by encouraging blind variation within the organization. Whether nonsense making will result in the maintenance of established institutions (inertia) or the transformation of institutions (adaptability) depends on the relative magnitude of the institutional forces at work compared to the cognitive conflict caused. Nonsense can be turned into sense in at least two ways: by ignoring i.e. maintaining institutions to which the data is fitted or by adapting i.e. transforming institutions to fit the data. Once things make sense, they will be retained.


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