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Escaping the Downward Spiral and Fostering Healthy Goals : Death March Projects

Updated: Sep 10

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers…" These words by Steve Jobs may well serve as the rallying cry for ambitious leaders who confidently set sail towards audacious objectives. But wait, before we go any further, let's pause and dissect this a bit. A thin line separates the daring from the delusional, the bold from the brash, the enthusiastic from the exhaustingly overzealous. It's the Death March versus the Victory Parade. And, no, we're not talking about literal death here, but about the infamous term coined by Edward Yourdon in his seminal book, "Death March."


In a nutshell, a Death March project is one that is destined to fail. It’s characterised by impossibly tight deadlines, unrealistic expectations, resource scarcity, and stubborn denial of the project's imminent demise. And believe me; it's not a fun ride. More often than not, it's led by leaders who have bit off more than they can chew, and instead of admitting the reality, they drag their team along on a self-sabotaging journey of heroic effort and inevitable burnout. Yet, the irony is that while they might see themselves as the next Jobs or Musk, they're unknowingly sailing a sinking ship.


But hey, let's not get too gloomy here. This isn't a tale of despair. On the contrary, it's a guide to spotting these death marches and, more importantly, a road map to safe and successful projects.


You might be thinking, "How do I spot a Death March project, Alan? What signs should I be looking for?" Well, there are a few tell-tale signs that you’re caught in the deadly march:


  1. Unrealistic Deadlines: If your leader is setting timelines that make even the most seasoned team members wince, you may be on a Death March. Remember, being ambitious doesn't mean impossible. In the Project Management trade, we call it "right to left planning"; it's a tell-tale sign that something is wrong. You start with a date and work back from there. There are ways to work with that, but it might be an indicative sign.

  2. Relentless Overwork: Death Marches are often characterised by an all-consuming work culture, where rest is considered a luxury and overtime is the norm, not the exception.

  3. Denial of Difficulties: Watch out for managers who consistently ignore or downplay problems and obstacles. A good leader addresses issues head-on rather than pretending they don’t exist. Management of risk here is key. The big, hairy, scary risks start to stack up and resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I'll come back to that in another post.

  4. Lack of Resources: Are you constantly struggling to get what you need to complete your tasks? The scarcity of resources coupled with an insistence to 'make do' might signal a Death March. If you've got teams trying to keep the lights on elsewhere, deliver on other things simultaneously, and expect them to 'balance priorities', you likely have a problem.

  5. Uncompromising Vision: Ambition is good, but not when it turns into stubborn inflexibility. If your leader is unwilling to re-evaluate or adjust goals despite obvious challenges, you might be marching to the beat of a Death March.

  6. High Staff Turnover: If people leave the project or the company at an unusually high rate, it’s often a clear sign of a toxic work environment.


These signs are warnings, not just of a project that may fail but of an environment that doesn't value its team's wellbeing. In recognising them, you can take the first step towards steering clear of toxicity and fostering healthier work dynamics.


So, you may ask, how do we protect ourselves from falling into this trap? First and foremost, embrace one simple truth: Your mental health and personal time are precious and deserve protection. And here's the thing about sacrifice: it's meaningful and profound when it's towards something achievable and worth the effort. Sacrificing for a doomed venture? That's akin to pouring your favourite ale down the drain — bitter, senseless, and wasteful.


This isn't about shunning ambition or stifling creativity. It's about advocating for balance and sanity amidst the hustle. Remember, being part of something great should not mean signing up for constant anxiety, sleepless nights, and a dwindling sense of self-worth. The best projects are those that inspire, challenge, and grow you, not those that leave you drained and disillusioned.


All right, it's time to lighten the mood. Let's end this on an optimistic note. The business world isn't just a collection of endless death marches. There are countless inspiring examples of visionary leaders who have managed to stretch goals without snapping the backs of their teams. I've worked with many. They understand the importance of nurturing their people while striving for success and fostering an environment that encourages innovation, resilience, and well-being.


So, next time you’re faced with a new project or role, take a moment to consider: Is this a Death March or a Victory Parade? Will it drain or inspire you? Will it crush or grow you? Making the right choice might save your mental health and set you off on the path of real, rewarding success. Remember, the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers - they can change the world, but not by overstretching themselves or others. After all, even an epic journey should have rest stops and room for laughter along the way.


To conclude, let's embrace ambition, chase our dreams, and do it wisely and healthily. Let's replace the Death March with a Victory Parade, one where everyone is dancing, not dragging their feet. Because in the grand scheme of things, we're here to enjoy the ride, not just endure it.

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