Politics is the hidden landmine that can blow up your IT projects, says Gartner

There are many different things that can stall an IT project.

July 19, 2012

There are many different things that can stall an IT project – lack of cash, human resource issues, unexpected technical hitches – but, says Gartner analyst Tina Nunno, political problems are also not only common, but can be difficult to spot.

“People don’t talk about it in public, but there are plenty of projects where everyone will acknowledge off the record that the problem is political,” says Nunno, who will present several talks on CIO power politics at the Gartner Symposium Africa in August.  “So you have to apply a political solution. You can’t solve a problem if you’re not solving for the right variable.”

The key indicator that a problem is political, says Nunno, is that “people appear to be reacting irrationally. It goes beyond the emotional – we’re talking gut-level responses here. Neuroscience research shows that 80% of all our decisions are based on emotion, so this is not something you can wish away.”

There are four “landmine issues” that Nunno says are most likely to trigger this visceral response. “Shifts in status and control are two major sources of political resistance within organisations,” she says. “People tend to be very sensitive to their position in the hierarchy, and will fight anytime that position is threatened. Shifting control is likely to spark the same reaction.”

Resource constraints are another factor in political battles, says Nunno. “Fights are more common in times of scarcity, like the one we are living through now. The sum total of needs is always more than the money we have, and sometimes there are very unpleasant choices to be made. This can lead to major political battles.”

Finally, says Nunno, political responses can be triggered when someone’s core belief is threatened, possibly inadvertently. “This happens a lot in IT,” she notes. “Data is the enemy of belief, so if you’re producing reports that challenge someone’s ideas about what they believe is right, you’re very likely to face a political reaction.”

Fortunately, says Nunno, “just knowing that things are political is a good start. Identifying the situation correctly is essential – only then can you decide on the appropriate response.”

This will often involve practicing some empathy, says Nunno. “Politics is not inherently negative and not all problems can be solved by looking at traditional data of the kind that is found in business cases,” she says. “Sometimes we need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to understand what they are really worried about – then it’s much easier to find the right course of action.”

The good news for CIOs, says Nunno, is that “the stereotype of people who can’t deal with emotion is rapidly becoming invalid. CIOs are in fact remarkably adept at bringing people together. It’s one of the only roles that has initiatives cutting across the whole enterprise. On the one hand that means you face more political risk, but on the other hand it gives a very valuable, broad perspective.”

At the Gartner Symposium Africa, to be held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from August 28-30, Nunno will present several talks on CIOs, power, politics and leadership.

For more information and a full agenda, please visit http://www.gartner.co.za.