The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

Summary: Gridlock and denial, both related to lack of consensus among team members, are among the most significant and common problems on many IT projects.

TOPICS: CXO, IT Employment

Gridlock and denial are among the most significant and common problems on many IT projects. These phenomena are related to insufficient degrees of consensus among participants on a project team. As I talk with folks working on enterprise software deployments, this topic often seems to resonate strongly as a major obstacle to success.

IT projects are obviously not the only area of human interaction where questions of consensus arise. An article by SugarCRM's Vice President of Strategic Solutions, Mitch Lieberman, on the "Standing Ovation Problem," which he pulled from an academic paper of the same title, inspired this post.

Mitch describes the Standing Ovation Problem:

Stated simply, a standing ovation is at the end of a lecture, presentation or performance (stage or athletic) certain members of the audience stand up and clap for a long(er) duration, which leads to other audience members doing the same. While a 10 year old might be able to explain what it is (mine did); why it happens is another issue altogether.

Reading this, it seemed evident the Standing Ovation Problem is connected consensus and "group think," a topic that is strongly associated with virtually every IT failure.

Without sufficient consensus on key project issues, two bad problems often arise:

  • Gridlock: Project progress stops, due to lack of consensus or agreement on the best steps forward. In gridlock situations, the team cannot reach agreement, so project decisions slow down while everyone fights it out.
  • Denial: Project progress continues, despite lack of consensus. In denial situations, the team does not address disagreements, agreeing to wait until sometime in the future to resolve open issues. Problems then simmer below the surface only to "unexpectedly" erupt later, usually in more severe form.

Unable to gain team agreement, decision makers often have little choice but to accept project delays in the present or ignore problems by pushing decisions into the future.

In my experience, gridlock and denial among the most pernicious and subtle causes of IT project failures.

Read the case studies of failure in this blog, and you'll repeatedly see these patterns. These communication problems undermine healthy team collaboration and lead to the large-scale IT failures. No simple formula can magically solve these problems, which are deeply rooted in the culture and habits of how teams work together.

That said, I suggest paying careful attention to team meetings where lack of consensus seems to be present. To address the issues at hand, find a way to surface the underlying goals and expectations of project participants. This may involve private meetings, group discussions, or perhaps even a combination of sorcerer's potions and good luck. Regardless of the method used, surfacing expectations across departments or information silos, is crucial.

My take. Virtually no organization is immune to gridlock and denial. Recognizing that fact gives you a realistic chance to interrupt cycles of dysfunctional collaboration that may be hidden beneath veneers of congeniality and team participation.

If you disagree, study your own IT project success or failure rates. If you aren't happy with the conclusions, then it's highly likely the twin evils of gridlock and denial are present to at least some degree in your team.

Please share your experiences with project gridlock and denial. Do you see these as consensus problems or related primarily to something else?

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Topics: CXO, IT Employment

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  • Consensus can be a far bigger problem than lack thereof

    in my experience consensus is more often co-
    existent with your "Denial" state, rather than

    In such situations the stakeholders may
    be completely consensual but simultaneously in
    denial. You alluded to the dangers of
    Groupthink and I would have liked to have seen
    the discussion to include misplaced consensus.

    Perhaps there should be three possible states
    for this piece: Gridlock, Denial, Delusional
    • Delusional....

      You make an excellent point about misplaced consensus, probably is should be handled separately from denial. Although they are related, there are differences as well.

      On the other hand, denial is the ultimate form of group delusion, so perhaps we are really talking about the same thing. Needs further thought...
  • RE: The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

    My old company thumped $24 million down on a fancy Agile/Oracle system to do travel reports. The employees then had to do their expense reports when they got back on their computers. Well, it replaced 2 minimum wage clerks who used to do the same thing, plus we added 12 highly paid DB professionals to the IT staff to fix problems. To add insult to injury, the employees doing their expense reports were out of service for the first day they were back, both doing their reports and waiting for the IT help desk to fix problems.

    Yep, they went out of business.
    • Fantastic story

      It really boggles the mind how common this type of story is. Thanks for sharing it.
  • RE: The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial


    That's a very interesting tale. I wonder what the negative ROI was on that project. Was the plan on that project to eventually do more? $24M on a T&E project seems a bit crazy, especially with web-based alternatives.
  • Sounds like what epson is dealing with

    I just recently purchased an all in one from epson. It's an excellent machine, but the Epson Scan program does not work.

    While it would be expected that their might be issues with my Win7 x64 OS, I found a post relating to the very issue I am having going back to Windows ME and every version of Windows since.

    Epson insists that this is an issue with my computer, my Windows Operating system, and that I need to call them so that they can walk me through the installation. This is after I have followed every suggestion that I came across on the net.

    This is a clear case of denial.

    Denial that the customer has any IT experience.

    Denial that the customer has the intelligence to search the web for a solution.

    Denial that their scan software is faulty even though MS Paint can capture an image from the scanner without a problem.

    Denial that the customer can methodically, and logically analyze the issue and come to a reasonable conclusion as to what is causing the problem, such as the Epson Scan installation program that fails to complete without an error, and has done so on previous versions of Windows going back to Windows 2000.

    Denial that a bug in the Epson Scan installation program is what is causing the problem, not the customer's computer.

    Yep, a clear case of denial.

    IT can be so extremely stupid.
  • A standing ovation can be more denial than consensus.

    If you're standing to avoid looking "awkward" because
    everyone else is standing, to avoid feeling claustrophobic with
    everyone standing up around you or simply to avoid not being
    able to see what's going on, you're also helping to send a
    message that you thought the performance or lecture or
    whatever was brilliant, even if you did not. This is denial.
  • RE: The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

    Well, one way I can think of to solve Gridlock would be start a vote. Say, you have 3 ways to solve a problem, a b c.
    Let the entire team vote them, and pick the one with most votes. If that didn't solve the problem, then rate team lead's vote value as 3, Sr. member as 2, and other as 1. And that should be able to solve the problem.

    For the reasons of denial...
    There are two which I can think of:
    1. People are not thinking while they are working. (At lease not thinking hard enough.)
    2. To avoid bad consequences after questioning.

    To solve the problem according the first reason might be expansive. The incentive for finding such critical problem should be significant enough for people to care.

    To solve the second one is kind easy I think. Each team should have a public email account, which every single member have access to. Every member can direct their concern to the team lead using that account, and its team lead's responsibility to present them to the team on the next meeting.
  • RE: The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

    This points to the power of mind (ie psychology). People are
    people. We are human with failings, faults, and issues. We
    are also capable of inspired activity and great innovation. The
    power of change management lay in the social relationships
    and knowledge of the community. IT needs to adopt more
    psychological ways of understanding its customers and
    business peers.
  • RE: The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

    Unfortunately, while this is certainly true, the
    complexity problem is more like octuplets than twins,
    although these two are important.