The late Edwin H. Friedman rocked the leadership world with his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (1999). One look into any of its eight chapters will leave you scratching your head.  Why aren’t we talking about the implications for our churches and non-profit organizations? I won’t attempt to write a review of the book. There are plenty out there already. Rather, here is just one principle which applies in friendships, marriages, and organizational settings. It’s the concept of imaginative gridlock.

Friedman states emphatically that relationship systems often become “imaginatively gridlocked” or conceptually stuck. He writes:

“When any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. This is equally true regarding families, institutions, whole nations, and entire civilizations.”

Friedman describes relational systems that are imaginatively gridlocked as characterized by three interlocking realities:

  1. An unending treadmill of trying harder; with each other or in the organization.
  2. A continual search for new answers to old questions rather than an effort to reframe the questions themselves.
  3. Either/or, black or white, all-or-nothing ways of thinking that leads to false dichotomies.

Still not convinced? Here are some question others have used to break out of imaginative gridlock.

Where am I stuck in patterns that I can’t seem to get out of? Is my family, business, or organization growing and excelling? Am I willing to separate from my relationship or organization enough to see things clearly?

Friedman was clear that imaginatively gridlocked relationship systems will not change on their own. New or additional information is not enough.

“There must be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination, and indeed, even curiosity are rooted in the emotional responses, not in the cognitive. In order to break out of gridlock, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see things differently.”

Where might you need to step back far enough to break your own imaginative gridlock?


Dennis Nichols teaches in the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University and is Lead Faculty for the fully-online Master of Arts in Leadership degree