The twin evils of IT gridlock and denial

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

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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