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? rbrenDOjiLCLnYMxWhwOqner@ChacGdrgwwTvyrkkMtTyoCanyon.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:

An anxious dogInner Babble
It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
The rabbit that went down the rabbit-holeOur Last Meeting Together
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempi), ashore, probably to lay eggsSeven Ways to Get Nowhere
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
A fancy diagram of the kind that often accompanies management fadsWhy Do Business Fads Form?
The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.
The Messerschmitt Me 262, which was the first jet fighter to fly in combatHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The road to Cottonwood Pass, ColoradoComing April 24: Big, Complicated Problems
Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)And on May 1: Full Disclosure
The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXHzrAwObVmreFzUYner@ChacuMsqNDgFheHlampJoCanyon.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 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.