Lock-in is a phenomenon in decision making in which we observe escalating commitment to a decision of inferior quality, or to a course of action demonstrably less effective than one or more alternatives. In organizations, vendor lock-in is a common form of this dysfunction. In IT organizations, vendor lock-in happens, for example, when the organization builds custom software solutions based on a particular proprietary software or hardware technology.
Lock-in has other forms. They can be more insidious than vendor lock-in because they are self-generated and more difficult to detect. One example from problem solving is solution lock-in, in which the problem solvers escalate their commitment to a particular solution even when superior solutions exist or might exist.
Here are some indicators of solution lock-in.
- Escalating commitment
- Escalating commitment is the psychological state in which we continue to support a decision with increasing levels of resources despite its repeated failure to achieve projected results. It's characterized by an irrational desire not to abandon the decision.
- Escalating commitment can be difficult for the committed to recognize, because we cloak the irrationality of the compulsion to continue in a series of rational-sounding explanations: "We almost have it;" "We're 90% of the way there;" "Our recent breakthrough removes the last obstacle in our path;" "We've been under-resourced but we'll get it with just a bit more effort."
- Sunk resources
- When things aren't going well, and a growing minority begins to wonder whether we ought to scrap what we have and start over, some inevitably say, "We can't quit now — we have too much invested."
- This is the "sunk resources" Escalating commitment can be difficult
for the committed to recognize, because
we cloak the irrationality of the
compulsion to continue in a series of
rational-sounding explanationsargument, and it often dominates. The appropriate reply — "let's not throw good money after bad" — often doesn't prevail until there is no more good money left to throw.
- The prototype becomes the answer
- Problem solvers sometimes create prototypes of possible solutions, originally intended simply to explore the solution space. Under pressure from Marketing, Sales or even senior management, these prototypes are often offered to customers, and eventually become the solution.
- When this happens, little consideration is given to the question of whether they are good enough to become the solution. The organization just locks in, failing to provide resources to study other possible solutions.
- Undervaluing open options
- Groups that have too little regard for keeping their options open are more likely to lock in. This can be a result of the personal preferences of group members. Some prefer early closure, while others like to maintain alternatives.
- A group dominated by the former is more at risk of lock-in. Lock-in behavior can also result from perceived pressure from outside or above. When the group resolves these perceptions by locking in, it is at risk of bypassing superior solutions.
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See "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II," Point Lookout for November 30, 2011, for a discussion of the connections between lock-in and confirmation bias.
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