War Rooms for IT: More Harm Than Good?
October 23, 2013

Belinda Yung-Rubke

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As enterprise networks become ever more complex, IT teams face a difficult challenge when it comes to diagnosing and addressing technical and operational issues. Modern IT systems are often an amalgam of networks, servers and applications that are managed by largely independent teams with their own processes and tools. That can make responding to something straightforward — like end-user complaints about poor application performance — an involved and vexing problem that is as much about managing group dynamics as tracing packets and pings.

In recent years, the War Room model has become a popular approach to large group problem solving in IT as well as other organizational settings. Sometimes called Tiger Teams or extreme collaboration, the basic approach of the War Room is to round up a group of people who don't always work together, put them in one place and set them to finding a solution to a critical problem. The premise is that in-person interaction and a singular goal will lead to new thinking, and a quicker, more effective solution.

First utilized by software development teams, War Rooms have now become accepted practice for generalized IT teams. Unfortunately, War Rooms may not work as well as advertised, if at all.

As Toxic War Rooms — a recent research paper from Seattle Pacific University — points out, there are four common pathologies that call into question the effectiveness of the War Room approach.

1. They lead to defending and deflecting rather than problem solving

Ask most IT people and they'll tell you they have more than enough work to fill their days. In a War Room setting, they will often be reluctant to take on more responsibilities if it means delaying or neglecting the work that is already on their plates. Since War Rooms are often tense, finger pointing is fairly common. And since each person has their own tools and monitoring systems, it's hard to get everyone on the same page.

2. They make teams less productive

As mentioned above, everybody has their own work to do. When they're in a War Room that "real" work is not getting done. And as the old adage goes: "To a hammer, everything looks like a nail." That means War Room participants often approach problems from their own narrow perspectives, leading to a lack of coherence. With so many individual ideas and voices, it can actually get in the way of individual thought processes.

3. They are reactive and not proactive

War Rooms are often set up to deal with problems only after they've reached crisis stage. The extreme nature of the problems — and resulting pressure to fix them — leads to poor decision-making.

Moreover, by its very nature, the War Room assembles people from different domains operating with limited information. This adds to the likelihood of reactive decision-making in the short term and doesn't help with long-term problem solving either.

4. They promote groupthink

People working in groups can often lose themselves to the group. They start thinking alike, defer to dominant voices and lose their own individual creativity and sense of responsibility.

In a crisis, near-term solutions often crowd out potentially better longer-term alternatives. And in the interest of group harmony, people self-censor rather than challenge the dominant wisdom. That can lead to situations where groups continue to pursue an alternative even when it's becoming increasingly clear that they're headed in the wrong direction.

Click here to read Part 2 of this blog: 4 Alternatives to War Rooms

Belinda Yung-Rubke is Director of Field Marketing for Fluke Networks.

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Click here to read the full paper from Seattle Pacific University

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