Death March Projects

death march landscape

Being in management consulting long enough, we have all been in at least one or two of them.  They are the projects where he project schedule, budget, and staff are much less than what is necessary for completion of a daunting task. The planned objective is unrealistic. People are working 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and stress is taking its toll.

Such projects have a seriously high risk of failure, yet the clients management is either blind to the situation or has no alternative. Why do these irrational projects happen, and what leads people to get involved in them?

All projects involve a certain degree of risk and pressure, but many of the projects in today’s chaotic business environment involve such intense pressure that they are referred to colloquially as "death-march" projects, i.e., projects whose schedules are so compressed, and/or whose budgets, or resource (people) assignments are so constrained, that the only "obvious" way to succeed is by overcoming impossible odds and achieve miracles.

The personal goal of the project manager and team members often shrinks down to mere survival: keeping one’s job, maintaining some semblance of a relationship with one’s spouse and children, and avoiding a heart attack or ulcer. Such things happen.

I was involved in a number of death march projects in the 1990s and I was also the sponsor who started some. Then in the recent ten years I have been involved as programme- or risk manager in some really big ones, and  I have seen a number of projects that may have been successful but which have led to illness, divorce and in two cases I know, to heart attacks and long term stay in hospital for recovery.

So when we see them or get involved in them, who don´t we try to stop them? Well, it is usually about the psychology and initially a lack of understanding of the true situation.

So how do you notice if you are in a death march?

There are many signs that may help you detect if your team is falling into this dynamic, but the main indicator is team motivation, the problem with motivation is that hard to tell when the motivation is going down until is very late. A few indicators could be:

  • The team is starting to miss deadlines with apparently no reason. It could be an early sign that they are loosing motivation and concerns should be raised from the second deadline missed.
  • Communication is not as fluent as is used to be. In a healthy team communication happens in an informal way almost continuously, if you detect that your team is starting to communicate less, probably is because motivation is going down.
  • The team is been under high pressure for too long with no reward. This is one of the big motivation killers.
  • Decisions have been imposed by client sponsor or management and the team does not agree with them.

The term death march projects was coined by the American project professional Ed Yourdon in a theme issue of the American Programmer magazine in 1997. I got a copy from a project manager at Handelsbanken Markets in Stockholm in the autumn of 1997 and below you can find a scanned copy to download and read. Do so, it is worthwhile.


man climbing mountainSo, what are really the characteristics of a death march project, how do they happen and what can be done about them?

In my experience, having been through a number of them, quite simply, a death march project is one whose "project parameters" exceed the norm by at least 50 percent. In most projects, this means one or more of the following three constraints have been imposed upon the project:

  • The schedule has been compressed to less than half the amount estimated by a rational estimating process; thus, the project that would normally be expected to take 12 calendar months is now required to deliver its results in six months or less. Because of the competitive pressures of business competition in today’s global marketplace, this is probably the most common form of death march project.

  • The staff has been reduced to less than half the number that would normally be assigned to a project of this size and scope; thus, instead of being given a project team of 10 people, the project manager has been told that only five people are available. Unfortunately, it is happening often because of the ongoing economic recession and the associated cutbacks in budgets.

  • The budget and associated resources have been cut in half. Again, this is often the result of downsizing and other cost-cutting measures, but it can also result from competitive bidding on a fixed-price contract, where the project manager in a consulting firm is informed by the marketing department that, "the good news is that we won the contract; the bad news is that we had to cut your budget in half in order to beat out the competitors." This kind of constraint often has an immediate impact on the number of project team personnel that can be hired, but the consequences are sometimes a little more subtle, e.g., it may lead to a decision to hire relatively inexpensive, inexperienced junior people, rather than higher-cost veterans. I have seen such an outcome in the procurement of a public sector project in Africa recently, and I dread the outcome for the client.

The immediate consequence of these constraints, in most organizations, is to ask the project team to work twice as hard and/or twice as many hours per week as would be expected in a "normal" project. Thus, if the normal work-week is 40 hours, then a death march project team is often found working 14-hour days, six days a week. Naturally, the tension and pressure escalate in such environments, so that the death march team operates as if it is on a steady diet of Red Bull.

Death march in snowOf course, even a project without the schedule, staff, budget, or functionality constraints described above could have a high risk of failure, e.g., because of hostile politics or lack of cooperation between the involved stakeholders. But most commonly, the reason for the high risk assessment is a combination of the mentioned constraints.

Anyway, if you find yourself project managing  a death march, how can you increase the odds of success?

Maintaining the well-being of the team is vital. A death march project has more than its share of strains. At best, the project is behind schedule for most of its span. The demands on the team are intense, as the project sponsors continue to hope (and sometimes push) for miraculous catch-ups. The project manager must somehow be an “Energizer” and keep the team going.

The first two conditions for success in a death march are vision and realism. The team must commit to delivering and must believe in the value of the end results. If the project is strictly impossible, who can succeed? No circumstances (other than cancellation of the project) will change the outcome. If the goal is superfluous, who cares? The target project for a successful death march is one with marginal, not impossible, odds.

The success of a death march is the triumph of the positive over the negative. So:

1. Create a positive environment
2. Eliminate obstacles
3. Cut the right corners
4. Find the one true measure of success
5. Expect and reward achievement

Of course, this advice is good for any project. In a death march, doing these things will give team members a reason to seek out your kind of management and that kind of work. Sooner rather than later, the team will want to reach new goals, take on new challenges, and again reign over schedule and need.

Dilbert on death march


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

four − 2 =