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.[*]
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? rbrenwfPdofmBPuPwRXoZner@ChacPeptvzFlgUIEKdcWoCanyon.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:
- Smart Bookshelves
- If you like to browse in bookstores, you probably know the thrill of new ideas and new perspectives.
When I find a book worth reading, I want to own it, and that's how it gets to my shelf. Here are some
tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
- Email Antics: II
- Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own
actions. Here's Part II of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- When 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.
- Unnecessary Boring Work: I
- Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about
work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
- Workplace Anti-Patterns
- We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life,
including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenMQlPnkvPBeSPCuCvner@ChacZxhffnyrtyBUrPRSoCanyon.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, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.