Decision-Making Delay

Brad Spangler

July 2003

Delay and its Implications

"In some negotiations, the tactic of one side might be to delay negotiations indefinitely. For example, environmentalists can often discourage a developer through protracted litigations." -- Howard Raiffa, in The Art and Science of Negotiation, 1982

Delay is a tactic of slowing down a decision-making process in order to maintain the status quo. It is employed mainly by parties involved in difficult public policy disputes (though it can be used in other contexts) who do not want changes made. If a group is part of the decision-making process but does not want change, the slower the process, the better. If they do not have a say in the design of the process, then they can deliberately delay it by stalling on their involvement.[1]

Strategic delays are often used by disputants who do not have the power to win directly in court or through legislative action, for example (see power inequities).[2] Rather than waste their resources on a fight they cannot win, some use delaying tactics to frustrate their opponent. For example, a city government was considering the approval of a new industrial plant. Residents of the neighborhood near the proposed site were opposed to the idea, but they didn't have the political clout to stop it. So they decided to delay the decision-making process, by asking for a variety of site assessments, insisting on a long string of public meetings, and bringing a lawsuit which they knew they couldn't win, but it delayed the process even further. Their goal was to delay the decision long enough that the company would get frustrated and give up. At the same time, they also hoped to gain enough community support that local decision makers would decide to refuse the necessary permits for political reasons if the company pursued its quest.

Delay in U.S. Systems

In the United States as well as many other democratic governments, there are many mandated procedures that must be followed in formulating and implementing public policies. In the interest of democratic governmental legitimacy, it is possible for a large number of different parties to use the executive, legislative, and judicial systems to have a say in any decision-making process. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency proposes a new regulation, it is possible for various groups to challenge the proposed regulation. First the challenge is within the EPA (part of the executive branch), and if that doesn't work, in court. If that doesn't work they can lobby the legislature to change the law in their favor. Without getting into the details of official procedures, it is sufficient to say that the desire for openness in the process of government has led to some serious problems. Because so many interests are involved in the policy making process, it can take a very long time to reach and implement decisions.

Parties who see delay as an advantage and do not want a certain rule made or law passed have figured out ways to manipulate the system in order to delay decisions, or even kill a proposal.[3] The filibuster is a classic delay tactic used in the U.S. Senate when one political party opposes a bill introduced by the other party. Filibusters are attempts to delay passage of a bill by debating it at length.[4] Oftentimes, a Senator will simply give an extraordinarily long speech about whatever he pleases. The idea is to hold the floor as long as possible to delay voting on an issue until the appropriate time has passed and it is no longer possible, or until the advocates withdraw the bill, realizing that it will never get past the filibuster.

Unavoidable Delay

Normally, disputants use delay to deliberately stall the decision making process. However, delay may also be the natural outcome of a difficult negotiation process. For example, if parties are involved in consensus building it can take a long time for all parties to agree on a settlement. Although there are several tactics that can be used to speed the process up, in extremely complex cases involving multiple parties and many issues, any effort to speed the process must be made carefully. Rushing can easily lead to the process breaking down or to poor agreements being made that will not hold up over the long term.

Ways to Avoid or Block Delaying Tactics

In cases where a decision is taking a long time there are two key ways to break the deadlock -- both have to do with increasing the pressure on all parties to reach an agreement.

One way to push negotiations toward agreement is to set an actual deadline by which a decision must be reached or the negotiations will be terminated.[5] The other is to shape your opponents' perceptions of the cost of delay or manipulate the actual costs of delay. Setting a deadline can have a related effect on a party's perception of costs. Though in some cases time limits present the same pressures to both sides, it is often the case that a deadline may be asymmetrical, meaning that the costs of delay are higher for one side than the other. Thus, it is possible to force a settlement if you can convince your opponent that you have unlimited time to spend on the issue (indefinite delay) and that their costs will be affected.[6] If the cost of a long delay is too high for them, they are likely to give in and come to an agreement.

There are three strategies for intentionally manipulating the costs of delay in negotiation. The first tactic is to organize some form of disruptive action that will increase the cost of delay for your opponent.[7] This will let them know you do not intend to sit back and allow them to delay the final decision. Rather, the action will make it clear that any delay will raise the cost of their involvement in the process, and will help persuade them to sit down at the table and work out an agreement. A prime example of disruptive action would be to publicly picket a business and disrupt its operation.[8]

A second strategy "to increase costs of delay or terminate negotiations is to involve other parties in the process who can somehow influence the outcome."[9] For example, people who are unhappy with the policies and practices of a government agency might form a task force, political action group, or protest organization to push for change.[10] This form of alliance or collective action raises pressure on the agency to meet the demands of its critics. Lastly, a party may manipulate the negotiations schedule in order to take advantage of time constraints. For example, if a party has had to travel to the negotiation table, the host party may delay the discussion of an actual agreement until the end of a session. This tactic may help the host to gain concessions from the visiting party at the last minute.[11]

[1] The ideas in this paragraph were drawn from Strategic Delays, International Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict, University of Colorado Conflcit Research Consortium. Available at This page offers a summarized definition of the strategic delays as well as several examples of the tactic.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 37.

[4] "Glossary", The United States Senate. Available at This is a basic glossary page, which provides a definition of filibuster.

[5] Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant, Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed The World's Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001), 123.

[7] Roy J. Lewicki and others, Negotiation, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1999), 83. This work is essentially a textbook about negotiation and offers a comprehensive look at negotiation theory and practice. Chapter Three, "Strategy and Tactics of Distributive Bargaining," includes a section about deadlines and the costs of delay.

[8] Ibid, 84.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Decision-Making Delay." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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