nineteenth-century logging industry in the United States reshaped the
landscape, provided income for tens of thousands of workers, and was a
significant source of economic resources in a difficult time.
In many wilderness areas, loggers would cut down
trees, trim their branches and roots until they could be rolled easily,
and haul them to the banks of a river. When spring floods came, the
logs floated downstream to the mill on the current.
Imagine a rapidly flowing river packed with logs. Suddenly a change in course shifts the
flow. Perhaps the width narrows, the channel jerks in a funny
direction, or a group of boulders breaks the surface. The logs pile up
amazingly fast, slamming into each other and backing up. The front of
the jam locks down under severe pressure, forming a single, immovable
Timber continues to pile in. The trees compress
against each other with crushing strength, squeezing under the strain
until they form a huge, tension-locked mass. The straining pressure is
intensely dangerous. Water backs up behind them as if they were a dam,
and the force cements them in place.
Crews of men set to work on them with all kinds of
tools, from hand-axes to dynamite. It was dangerous work. Once the jam
was broken, a torrent of heavy logs could rain down on the workers.
Many men lost their lives clearing logjams.
The Great Log Jam of 1883 in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, reportedly involved over 150 million feet of logs and was
called “One of the Most Terrific Battles in the History of American
Industry.” This was not just because the heroics of the men overcame
tremendous odds stacked against them by physics.
Their victory averted doom for the local economy.
If the logjam had gone wrong, tremendous losses would have been
incurred, including lumber valued in millions of dollars, the impact on
the mills, thousands of jobs lost and as a result people losing their
homes. In addition, the banks that held their notes would have
collapsed, and there would have been domino consequences on local
The point is to avoid getting into a logjam
whenever possible. Nevertheless, they are an unavoidable part of change
in a complex environment. Once they happen, break them as quickly as is
safely possible to reduce the costs they can incur.
When a logjam occurs in your organization—that is,
when the flow of positive change stops—get on it as soon as you can.
Otherwise the organization begins to develop processes built on top of
or around the difficulty, locking it into place. Other related
activities then backfire, sometimes raining down on the very people
working to get the change going again.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, logjams are a regular part of
organizational life, as are obstacles of all other kinds: stalls,
bottlenecks, derailments, miscommunication, and more.
So be prepared. Anticipate difficulties. Accept
that they are part and parcel of successful implementation. Have a
plan. When they occur, go to meet them. Use them as opportunities for a
For my recipe on how to engineer a successful
breakthrough, read my Fast Co piece, 6 Steps to a Successful Breakthrough.