5.2.4 Seven steps to break through organizational gridlock


Adapted from Senge, P. et al. 1994, the fifth discipline field book, p. 165-172.


Gridlock results when people behave as if they are independent, each pulling in a different direction.

Step 1: Identify the original problem symptom

Look back over a period of time and identify a class of symptoms that have been recurring.

Step 2: Map all quick fixes

Try to map out all the fixes that have been used to tackle the identified problem. The objective is to identify a set of balancing loops that appear to be keeping the problems under control.

Step 3: Identify undesirable impacts

Actions taken by one group almost always affect others in the organization (e.g. if each team’s solution causes a problem for the other team). Identify a reinforcing process that locks the players into a patterned response.

Step 4: Identify fundamental solutions

Having identified the undesirable effects of your quick fix, you need to find a solution that will more fundamentally address the problem. You will need to look at the situation from everyone’s perspective to achieve a fundamental solution.

Step 5: Map additive side effects of quick fixes

There are usually side effects of the quick fixes that steadily undermine the viability of the fundamental solution. This leads to a reinforcing spiral of dependency.

Step 6: Find interconnections between to fundamental loops

Finding links between the interaction effects and the fundamental solution. The interaction effects create spiraling resentment, which leads to an increasing unwillingness to communicate with the other team, resulting in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.

Step 7: Identify high leverage actions

If you are able to get a bird’s eye-view, you can see the larger grid. The process of mapping out a gridlocked situation can be a high leverage action and be a starting point for communication across walls.

You know you found a high leverage intervention when you can see the long-term pattern of behavior shift qualitatively in a system, for example if stagnation gives way to growth or if oscillations dampen. This kind of breakthrough happens most readily when you can make alterations in the structure you’ve mapped out. You either add new desirable loops or break linkages that produce undesirable impacts.

  • Adding a loop: translates into designing and implementing a new process, monitoring information in a new way, or establishing new policies.
  • Breaking a link: eliminating or weakening undesirable consequences of your actions or ceasing strategies which are counterproductive in the long run.

When you add loops or break links, it’s critical to try to make such mental models explicit, because the reasons underlying peoples’ actions are fundamental to the system’s structure.