Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 12;   March 23, 2011: Indicators of Lock-In: I

Indicators of Lock-In: I

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In group decision-making, lock-in occurs when the group persists in adhering to its chosen course even though superior alternatives exist. Lock-in can be disastrous for problem-solving organizations. What are some common indicators of lock-in?
Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Governor Scott Walker, Repub­li­can of Wiscon­sin. In early 2011, Gov. Walker filed a so-called budget repair bill that he said was made necessary by a budgetary crisis of Wisconsin state government. The bill would have reduced compensation and benefits for several categories of state workers and rescinded the collective bargaining rights of unions that, coincidentally, had not supported the Governor's candidacy in the previous election. Even though the unions agreed to all concessions relating to compensation and benefits, the governor would not accept their agreement and refused to amend his filing to remove the collective bargaining provisions. The standoff deepened as representatives of the opposition in the upper chamber of the legislature fled the state to prevent the quorum necessary for a vote, and the standoff became one between the opposition legislators and the Governor.

At this writing the standoff continues. Although one cannot know for certain as an outside observer whether lock-in has set in on one side or the other or both, many of the indicators of lock-in are present. Photo (cc) Gage Skidmore.

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 explanations
argument, 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.

Next time we'll explore indicators of lock-in that relate to the history of the decision-making group.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Indicators of Lock-In: II  Next Issue

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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