Psychology of Gridlock, Stalemate, Deadlock..: Pernicious Cause of Failure or Benign Necessity for Success…

 Gridlock is not a product of divided government, party politics, or any of the usual scapegoats. Instead, it’s an instrumental part of government– built into institutions and sustained by leaders acting not only to achieve set goals but to thwart foolish inadvertencies. ~David W. Brady and Craig Volden

Gridlock is the complete lack of movement, congestion, progress resulting in stalemate, stagnation, paralysis… In business, as in traffic, little-to-nothing gets done when gridlock happens, which can be highly problematic-costly for business, government, institutions… However, overcoming gridlock is not hopeless challenge; the trick is to uncover issues that lie beneath the surface…

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According to Babak Armajani; sometimes we get stuck by actions that would otherwise benefit the common good, which are then inhibited by differences among individuals, groups, organizations… we call it gridlock.  In business, government, institutions… gridlock is seen in many varying manifestations… While the particulars will vary from one situation to the next, consider these three clues for discovering and dealing with the root causes of gridlock:

  • Gridlock is sometimes rooted in competition over ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. We get stuck because, in this paradigm, success necessarily means that for one party to win, other must lose. The solution lies in changing the rules about winning and losing.
  • Gridlock can be rooted in what organizational behaviorist call ‘representative dynamics’. This phenomenon occurs when each constituency, organization or jurisdiction is represented by someone, e.g., legislator– to advance their interests. While representatives from differing parties might be capable of sitting down and working out solutions, their constituencies almost certainly will punish them for ‘selling out’. We see this in labor negotiations, jurisdictional conflicts, business negotiation, as well as, in the national fiscal debate. ‘Getting primaried’ has become a term of art in describing power of intractable constituencies over their representatives.
  • Breaking gridlock often means that we have to change not only the way we define winning and losing and the way we authorize our representatives but also the way we think and the way we talk. It’s not easy to get out of that rut– the key is building trust…

In the article Twin Evils of Gridlock and Denial by Michael Krigsman writes: Gridlock and denial are among the most significant and common problems in many companies. These phenomena are related to insufficient degrees of consensus among management, which often seems to resonate as major obstacle for success. Unable to gain agreement, decision-makers have little choice but to accept delays or ignore problems by pushing decisions into the future…

In many cases, gridlock and denial are among most pernicious and subtle cause of business failures. Virtually no organization is immune to ‘gridlock and denial’. However, recognizing the fact gives management realistic chance of interrupt cycles of dysfunctional collaboration that may be hidden beneath veneers… it’s highly likely that the twin evils of ‘gridlock and denial‘ are present in most teams. According to Mitch Lieberman; these key issues that manifest themselves are as follows:

  • Gridlock: Progress stops, due to lack of consensus or agreement on the best steps forward. In gridlock situations, the team cannot reach agreement so basic decisions      slow down/stop while everyone fights it out.
  • Denial: Progress continues, despite lack of consensus. In denial situations, the team does not address disagreements, agreeing to wait until sometime in the future to resolve open issues. Problems then simmer below the surface only to ‘unexpectedly’ erupt later, usually in more severe form.

In the article Cure for Cross-functional Gridlock by WorkLore writes: A classic case of ‘cross-functional gridlock’ is when functions and departments who need to coordinate become stuck, each unable to deliver on their goals and effectively forced to compromise on quality, schedules, budgets… In its extreme form, the pattern can escalate to such heated conflict that entire projects or processes are paralyzed– just as vehicle drivers are by traffic gridlock. And just as with a traffic jam, if you look down at the pattern from above, you can see how a smooth flow becomes a tight knot of honking vehicles and frustrated drivers pulled tighter and tighter as each player tries to push forward.

Cross-functional gridlock can show up anywhere you need coordination across boundaries. Think of engineering working with manufacturing, sales working with service, central functions working with field departments, information technology working with business units, internal groups coordinating with external customers. Untangling the self-defeating knots of conflict and wasted effort can be drawn from the fields of– conflict management, project management, process coordination… and they usually include: Linking Interests, Collaboration, Shared Vision, Commitment, Shared Outcomes…

In the article Political Gridlock: Private Sector Is Dying by Steve Denning writes: When economists add up all the things that the economy produces, they find that the economic pie simply isn’t growing fast enough to meet our collective needs… the economy isn’t providing a good living for all citizens… and the economic dysfunction that people see in their personal lives flows from this fundamental fact. Similarly at the national level, the political parties might blame each other, but in the end there is no way for politicians to slice current economic pie in a way to make things better for everyone: Hence, gridlock…

When the economy is barely growing, politicians find themselves fighting a bitter zero-sum game. However, don’t blame public sector: Shrinking the government will do nothing to solve the underlying problem of low economic growth. The reality is that the private sector itself– the engine of economic growth– is producing only a quarter of the rate-of-return-on-assets (ROA) or the rate-of-return-on-invested-capital (ROIC) that it was in 1965. According to ‘The Shift Index’– Deloitte’s magisterial study of 20,000 companies– covers U.S. firms from 1965 to 2010: This mirrors the decline in GDP. When we learn that private sector is doing so poorly, it’s tempting to question the messenger and claim that the wrong indices have been chosen…

This argument goes nowhere, because alternative indices show that the situation is actually worse. Why is the private sector– once the pride of U.S. and engine of economic growth– getting much lower returns on assets and capital than it used to get? The primary reason is that the world has changed and management hasn’t… Customers now have many choices and instant access to information about those choices, and they share views with other customers.

As a result, there has been an epochal shift in power from seller to buyer. Now large hierarchical bureaucracies are no longer nimble enough to cope with a world in which customers are in charge. In order to ‘delight’ customers, firms need continuous innovation. When using the word ‘management’, you probably think of bosses who tell people what to do in boring meetings with plans, reports, processes… where efficiency is the name of the game, where somehow real issues never seem to get addressed and where most people are disgruntled.

You may think of Dilbert-style management where even intelligent, highly educated people persistently act stupidly. But there is another way to manage: What would happen if a firm opted to focus totally on adding-value for customers? When a firm delights its customers it grows, independently of any business cycle because it creates its own demand. The successful firms finds ways to continuously add-value to customers… and deliver value sooner, better, faster… It’s not rocket science: It’s ‘radical management’.

In the article Half of All Companies Suffer Innovation Gridlock by Mark Sutton writes: The worldwide survey of 560 business and technology executives found that 46% of respondents said their organizations suffered from ‘Innovation Gridlock’– that’s where the business is blocked from driving innovation, since the majority of funding is consumed in maintaining the existing infrastructure. The companies surveyed, on average, spent 30% of budget on new initiatives, 40% on mission critical systems, and 30% legacy systems.

Half of respondents said that too much budget was spent on ‘maintaining operations’ and that prevented investment in innovation; although fear about the economy (53%) was an equally significant factor in not investing. Innovation gridlock in almost all of surveyed– lost opportunities, lost time, lost effort… In specific areas, 70% said gridlock stops them from investing in new technologies to meet changing business needs, 64% said prevented them from creating flexibility in operations, and 58% said it stops them from keeping up with competition. Just under half said that ‘innovation gridlock’ also stops them from meeting compliance and regulation requirement, or generating rapid change to meet changing business needs. According to John Hoonhout; innovation gridlock is real and it’s affecting a big proportion of the industry

In the article Political Gridlock of 1842 by Alasdair Roberts writes: Budgetary gridlock may be bad in Washington today, but we’ve been down this road before. Roll the clock back to March 1842 and at that time a British diplomat wrote; the United States is a mass of ungovernable and unmanageable anarchy… According to Abel Upshur; Congress is incompetent to legislate, if moral sense of the country does not rise against it, in disgust the proof will be complete… that they are without the virtue which is necessary to the preservation of free institutions…

Charles Dickens, arrived in Washington March 1842 on his first tour of the U. S., wrote; government is meanest perversion of virtuous political machinery… dishonest faction in its most depraved and unblushing form... According to London newspaper wrote; condition of the country (U.S.) is most appalling… Treasury is bankrupt for all intents and purposes… The root of all these troubles was an economic crisis, which was entering its sixth year in 1842. A speculative bubble had burst in 1836-39, causing a collapse of the financial sector and a subsequent depression. The country became deeply divided over the best response to the crisis.

President Tyler was burned in effigy outside the White House. Conditions got even worse in early 1842 because deadlines were looming. Finally, at the end of August 1842 Congress passed a bill that Tyler would sign… Today, obviously, it’s not as much a dire predicament. However, we can still learn something from the experience of the early 1840s:

  • Financial crises are usually followed by comparable crises in the sphere of politics: Financial crises are triggered by a collapse in trust among players in the markets. But economic decline eventually causes a comparable decline in trust within the political class, as old understandings about the sharing of national wealth become untenable.
  • Complaints about dysfunction in Washington naturally become more intense in times of economic crisis: In good times, it is easier to manage tensions  within the Union. It’s simply a matter of sharing windfalls from growth. In hard times, the business of politics consists mainly of allocating unanticipated losses. It’s an immensely harder and more fractious task. And perhaps the best we can hope for is that the country will stumble through until times get better, as it did in the 1840s.