Lindblom’s Incrementalism and Muddling Through

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Charles Lindblom, b. 1917

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below, p. 22-23) describes the crucial importance of Charles Lindblom’s critique of the rational model of decision making:

“In a famous 1959 article, Charles Lindblom argued that the unforgiving strictures of rational decisionmaking were so unrealistic in terms of the cognitive and political situation faced by most decisionmakers that they made choices by “muddling through.” In later work, Lindblom (1979) refined the model, both as a normative and a descriptive framework. In other words, incrementalism better described what really went on and, moreover, it had certain advantages over its apparently superior rival. In the real world of politics and administration, of course, there are multiple decisionmakers with conflicting perspectives and priorities, information is in short supply or contradictory, and everything has to be done immediately. In this situation, Lindblom and others argued, decisions get made on the basis of “successive limited comparisons.” In this method, goals and values are not neatly separated from each other or from the process of choice. In making decisions, we often clarify what we want and what we believe only through the process of concrete choices in specific situations. As well, we usually make choices against a backdrop of what has been done before – we move in usually small increments from one situation to the next.”

See also: Rational Decision Making Model; Pal’s Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Models of Decision Making (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101 Policy Analysis and Process.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Lindblom, C. E. (1959, Spring). The science of muddling through. Public Administration Review, 19, 79–88.

Lindblom, C. (1979, November–December). Still muddling, not yet through. Public Administration Review, 39, 517–526.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 27 March 2017.

Image: Alchetron, Charles E Lindblom, at, accessed 27 March 2017.