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

Dealing with Deadlock

by

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

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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

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