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."
Gridlock 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
vulnerable to deadlockOrganizational 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. Top Next Issue
Are 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!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- The Hypothetical Trap
- Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for
managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should
you be careful of the "What If?"
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes
lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- Twenty-Three Thoughts
- Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here
are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
- Decisions: How Looping Back Helps
- Group decision making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options,
researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach
yields disappointing results. Why?
- Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects
- The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators
of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior
has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info