Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 43;   October 26, 2005: Dealing with Deadlock

Dealing with Deadlock

by

Last updated: November 22, 2018

At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?

In cities with rectangular layouts, traffic can lock up when drivers enter intersections on green, but cannot clear them within that green. We call this phenomenon gridlock. [Popik 2004]

Gridlock is an example of a deadlock. In a deadlock, we find a closed path at each node of which we can say, "Movement is blocked because movement at a neighboring node is blocked."

DeadlockGridlock seems paradoxical because each driver is trying to move as quickly as possible, and yet the system is stuck. Resolution usually requires that some drivers abandon their goals temporarily, to make way for others to clear the system. It's each driver's local perspective that prevents the system from resolving the deadlock. And the path to resolution is visible only from the global perspective.

Organizational deadlocks work the same way. Here's an example. Let's suppose that Purchasing can't keep up with its workload, because it has been denied extra staff in anticipation of new productivity software. To handle its load temporarily, management decides to limit assistance to requisitioners. This change delays the work of the IT project team that's responsible for the new software that Purchasing itself needs to deal with its workload. Sadly, something like this is probably happening somewhere right now.

Hierarchy tends to
make organizations
vulnerable to deadlock
Organizational deadlocks can be surprisingly persistent. Most organizations function on the basis of hierarchical delegation, in which operational decisions are made locally. And since local decisions cannot resolve global deadlocks, the deadlocks tend to persist.

Here are some ideas for managing the risk of organizational deadlock.

Resolve feuds
Feuds, passive resistance, and their cousins limit cooperation. Feuds at high levels are especially dangerous, because they interfere with access to the global perspective.
Relax emphasis on unit performance
Too much emphasis on unit performance can erode the ability of individual units to modify their own efforts for the benefit of the whole. Cooperation must be recognized as part of unit performance.
Complete all acquisitions
When one company acquires another, it acquires its culture, too. Leaving both cultures in place can be problematic when the two must cooperate. Eradicating the acquired culture doesn't work either, because of the hostility that results. When collaboration is the end goal, the acquisition is complete only when the two cultures become one.

Sometimes, even when everyone tries to support global goals, honest differences appear. To resolve them, people need ways to escalate the dispute, but when escalation incurs a penalty, escalation itself becomes part of the deadlock. Rewarding and encouraging appropriate escalation is a key to resolving honest deadlocks. Let's hope there's no deadlock about that. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Costs of Threats  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Popik 2004]
The term gridlock first appeared in print in 1980, but it was probably in use in the New York City planning department as early as 1971. See Barry Popik's blog post Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenkOkpXoMgakgZmgyyner@ChackfInsKmmvXbUWOZFoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Getting a haircutCoaching and Haircuts
Lifelong learners use a variety of approaches, usually relying heavily on reading. Reading works well for some ideas and techniques, especially for those with limited emotional content. For adding other skills and perceptions, consider a personal coach.
A sundialRecovering Time: II
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To find more time, focus on strategy.
Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael BrownWhen Stress Strikes
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
A Cliff Chipmunk in Saguaro National Park in ArizonaThis Is the Only Job
You have a job. Even though you liked it once, those days are long past, and a return is improbable. If you could, you'd hop to another job immediately, but economic conditions in your field make that unlikely. How can you deal with this misery?
Mohandas GhandiNo Tangles
When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere. How does this happen?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Feeling shameComing December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control CenterAnd on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenVESMqjcpxGpZQyOYner@ChacwtKFptaSRUjopOOZoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.