The Death March trap

I hope you are enjoying a great holiday season. The last quarter of this year has been slightly insane for me. I have traveled to Japan four times, once to Singapore, once to Europe and once from Europe to NYC. On top of that, there is the sage of buying a place in the south of France (I cannot afford one in San Francisco). As a professional project manager, I thought we had a nice project plan and were executing according to plan. We did the initial signing for the place in early August and set the final signing date for the end of October. You would say three months should be enough to get to paperwork settled. The “normal” process in France takes about two months so we planned for 50% more time.

Of course, almost everything went not according to plan. Even though my partner speaks fluently French and had bought a place here before, the experience did not help to not turn this project into a death march project.

One of the things I have learned is that in France you cannot “push” the system. Everything takes however long they think it should take. And even though you would think that buying/ selling a house is a standard process, not even a project, the experience feels like it was a one-of-a-kind. Take getting the mortgage for example, you would say that is a simple checklist process, it took 2 months to get the paperwork correct with tight micro management from wherever on the earth we were. It definitely got my fingers itching to offer my services to the bank to help standardize some processes.

We did manage to get the mortgage signed the day before the final signing. Hoorah!!! Then we received a call while we where at the bank that there was still “some” paperwork not finalized for the final signing and the signing had to be pushed back. I will spare you the details, however, after a month of uncertainty on what was missing, when the date would be, and how long it would take, we ended up signing end of November. The date was set only 24 hours before.

IMG_20121222_084351Our beautiful project plan went up in smoke or maybe better up in “red tape” and we ended up on a death march path. According to Wikipedia  -““death march” may be applied to a project that is ultimately successful but involves a home stretch of unsustainable overwork, or (perhaps more often) to a project that any intelligent, informed member can see is destined to fail (or is at very high risk of failure) but that the members are nevertheless forced to act out by their superiors anyway. Both of these themes have metaphorical parallel in real death marches.”
Four different types of workmen needed to do their work in the apartment and we had planned to replace the current kitchen with a brand new one. The result was 14 to 16 hour workdays where we barely took the time to eat. The ultimate goal was Christmas Eve dinner. We had friends coming over for a real Christmas dinner to celebrate the season and our new place. Totally inline with the above definition, instead of taking their offer to have the dinner at their place, we continued on our “insane” path with unsustainable workload. This is how the place looked the morning of December 24th.

Death march projects happen all over the project management world and the sad thing is, there is this weird feeling of satisfaction when you reach (sort of) your goal close to total exhaustion. You even feel a bit lost the day after reaching your goal since the tremendous pressure has disappeared. Here is my top three reasons why death march projects should NOT happen:

  1. Quality – quality definitely gets impacted since your mind cannot be sharp for 16hrs a day. You end up making mistakes that cost additional rework. In addition, when on a death march (like a real one), our health gets impacted: we eat unhealthy foods or do not eat, drink loads of coffee to stay awake, and stop working out since we don’t have the time – which all effects the quality of our work.
  2. Team conflict – the pressure during death march projects is extremely high and people are tired. This causes all kinds of team conflicts, some that might even cause irreversible damage. In addition, there are only certain people that thrive during death marches who then are seen as the “heroes” while the whole team labored as hard.
  3. Health – there is nothing in the world so important it should affect your health. Death march projects are unhealthy, both physically and mentally. You eat badly, no longer work out, do not sleep enough and no longer have time for family and friends.

IMG_20121224_193932For those interested in the result, here was how the place looked 15min before our friends walked through the door.

Yes, it is satisfying to succeed, but the sacrifice was not worth it. It is as much about the journey as the destination!! And we didn’t have time to enjoy the journey.


2 thoughts on “The Death March trap”

  1. User Avatar

    All I can say, is “Wow!”. Congratulations! In addition to the health issues and the impact on our relationships, a huge issue with successful death-march efforts is that they raise the bar for future projects. “You did it last time…”, says management. And, like child-birth, with the passage of time, everyone forgets just how tough it was. With the only lingering memory being one of success, we are quick to accept another impossible challenge. And, so it is until our health issues win.

    Listen carefully to those wise folks with voices of reason the next time you hear, “You did it last time…”.

    1. User Avatar

      Excellent point Loyal. Thank you for adding it. I totally agree that management and sometimes even the team members only remember the successes and not the sacrifices to get there. Another excellent reason not to do death march projects.

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