It's the project no one wants to be part of or the project everyone knows is doomed and will never succeed. It does not, however, need to signal the end of your project management career nor an end to your sanity.
Though no silver bullet exists, bringing a death march project to successful conclusion can be accomplished by employing solid project management principles and a tenacious work effort.
Recognizing that you are about to undertake a potential death march project or your project has already turned into a death march, is the first step in the transformation process of changing the death march project into a parade.
After assisting you in recognizing death march projects, this paper will lead you through the recovery of death march projects by using parade analogies (floats, fire trucks, balloons, bands, and clowns) to highlight the need for solid project management technical skills and just as important soft skills.
Death march projects, troubled projects that have taken a serious turn to the worse, are a fact of life in the world of project management. Death march projects usually strike fear in the hearts of most project managers. These projects come in all shapes and sizes. They can also start innocently enough but become a death march as the project runs its course.
Death march projects are projects with serious problems that over time can have devastating effects that go beyond the project. Such a project could cause the closure of an organization. It can seriously jeopardize stock holder earnings, market confidence in the company stock, and it can ruin the credibility of an organization. On the human side of a death march project, health issues can arise from any team member associated with the project. Health issues can range from minor ailments, headaches, to very serious health problems.
We will begin by first understanding how a death march project differs from a normal project and even a troubled project. We'll look at the characteristics of projects that either start as a death march project or morphs into a death march. Examples of real death march projects will be used to highlight and understand these characteristics while at the same time drawing attention to key warning signs and subtleties that frequently appear during such a project and how to react to these warnings and prevent them from occurring.
Though we do not have a “silver bullet” or a magical software tool to stop a death march and turn it into a successful project what we do have are tried and true project management skills, which for a death march project, must be used effectively by knowing when and how to apply them. Our skill set must include not only our technical tools (Gantt charts, PERT diagrams, EVM, WBS, risk assessment) but also just as important our soft skills (communication, conflict resolution) in managing these projects. We'll also explore some simple tricks (“up all night”, “using your intuition”, and “trifocal glasses”) that can be effective in transforming a death march into a successful project parade.
Death March Projects Compared to Troubled and Failing Projects
Origination of the Term “Death March”
“A death march is a forced march of prisoners of war or other captives or deportees with the intent to kill, brutalize, weaken and/or demoralize as many of the captives as possible along the way.” (Death march, 2012, ¶1).
“In project management, a death march is any of several types of pathologic projects involving a dysphemistic, dark–humor analogy to real death marches, such as being gruelingly overworked, and (often and most especially) being gruelingly overworked for ill–founded reasons …” (Death march (project management), 2012, ¶1).
What we want to accomplish in this paper is the realization that a death march does not have to be that inevitable walk to death but rather: (1) If you can recognize that this project might turn into a death march soon enough then counter actions can take place to turn it into a project “parade”; or (2) If you are already on a death march, that again with the right actions, the death march can be turned around into a “project” parade.
One last point about death marches, they are not all created equally. Some death march projects can have a very long painful march before the project dies. Typically many software projects can fall into long marches due to the creative intellectual processes and the unknown time it may take to deliver the software. On the other hand, other death marches can be a very short march. As an example, a project that, once a due date is passed the project is forced to end. This could be a project that was expected to deliver a product or service into the market by a certain date. All the while, though, leading up to the due date everyone on the project knew full well that not enough time, resources, or investment was available to achieve the delivery date.
How does a death march project compare to a troubled project or a failing project? In his book, Project Management That Works, Rick Morris discusses “How to Spot a Project That Is on Its Way Down” (Morris, 2008, pp42–43) and at the 2009 PMI Global Congress in Denver, CO, Joan Knutson pointed out 9 examples of troubled projects (Knutson, 2008, pp1–4). There certainly are similarities between a death march project and a troubled or failing project. They share common symptoms and causes but I believe it comes down to the degree of difficulty to turn the project around, the significance or impact of the project, the resulting consequences if the project is terminated, and the potential mental and physical harm to the project participants.
Cause and Effect
How Well Intentioned Projects that Start Innocently Fall into Death March Projects
A project is never begun and announces for all to hear, “Hello, I'm a death march project do you want to join up and have some fun?” Instead, the project often morphs into a death march through fundamentally flawed project actions that either did not occur or were incorrectly assembled. As an example, a project scope statement that is vague and does not truly identify what is in scope will lead to assumptions and scope creep. A poorly written scope statement will first lead to a trouble project but over time if corrective action is not taken, expect stakeholders, sponsors, and team resources to develop a sense of confusion and frustration resulting in an eventual loss of project control.
The consequences of being on a death march project will vary from project to project. It can run from losing your project management job, having your project management ability questioned, losing the opportunities to be a project manager on subsequent projects, to being tagged as a loser for the rest of your career at that company. The list can go on and on.
Consider for a moment, the physical and emotional ailments that can arise from being associated with such a project. Much like the range of career consequences, the physical and emotional afflictions can range from headaches, stomach pains, to life threatening hearts attacks. Emotional ailments can range from sleepless nights to nervous breakdowns.
Changing a Death March Project into a Parade
Is it possible to take an apparent hopeless death march project and change it into a manageable “parade” project filled with brass bands, colorful floats, and high flying balloons? Much easier said than done but with the right attention to details, knowing what to look for, and actions to take, a death march does not need to be an end to your project management career.
Accepting the “Grand Marshal” Role
So perhaps after weighing your options and choices, assuming you have some, you choose to lead the death march project. In reality, many death march projects are assigned and no choice in the matter is given. What can you expect being the project manager and how do you transform your death march into a parade with you as the grand marshal?
Colin Powell once stated,
Leadership is all about problem–solving. In the military, there is a lot of discussion about where a leader should be on the battlefield. Should the leader be up front where it's possible to become a quick casualty or should the person be at the rear? The correct answer is that you should be at the point of decision. You should be where you can make the most difference. (Greengard, 2008, pp. 58–63)
So it is with the grand marshal. You will find that to transform a death march it may be necessary to roll up the sleeves, lead the project, and fight hand in hand to win additional resources and assist in the training of those resources. Be careful, though, that your time is wisely spent as on average a project manager should never do more than 10 percent of the project work. Instead use your project resources. At other times the project manager will need to be overseeing many tasks that are critical to the project success. So in the end, the grand marshal is both project manager and project leader.
Following Key Project Disciplines
There are no “silver bullets” or magical remedies that will resolve your death march project and turn it into a successful project that meets all its deliverable, comes in under budget, and is delivered on time. However, what does work is adherence to strong project management disciplines that can be found in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®Guide) (Project Management Institute, 2008), and guidance that is available from project management experts and authors.
What separates a death march project from the run of the mill project or even the trouble project is that key project disciplines have been glossed over, omitted, or written and discussed but never used. It will always be found that key project components have not been prepared and followed correctly which has led to the death march project.
There is so little margin of error left when hit with a death march project that it takes strong disciplined actions based on sound establish project management practices in order to turn around the project.
To better understand how this transformation should occur, we will now move our discussion into a more in depth look at recognizing death march projects and then begin the analogy of changing a death march into a parade using symbolisms that will make it easier to understand the value of each project management discipline.
Recognizing Death March Projects
Certain warning signs, symptoms, and subtleties of death march projects can be seen from the very small to the very large projects. Be on the lookout for the project no one seems to want. What happened to the other project manager? The Gantt chart that everyone refers to as the project plan and was assembled from limited input from the project stakeholders is another common warning sign.
During project conference calls and meetings, are all participants attending? Those that do attend, do they participate? Are action items being completed? If the answer is no, then you need to realize that your project team members are trying to escape the death march.
Some projects by their very nature lend themselves to a death march project: cultural change projects, bleeding edge technology, software development, projects with high cost or savings, and projects that require resources from multiple organizational groups. This is not to say that these projects should automatically be branded death march's nor should be avoided but rather these projects carry additional risk, difficulty, etc. Let's look at some in detail.
Any project that has the possibility to change the company culture, either directly or indirectly should immediately alert you to a death march. A cultural change need not necessarily be a perceived significant change. It can be as subtle as changing the software application used for reimbursing business expenses to as significant as outsourcing help desk support. The point being, that a cultural change can dramatically influence the resistance and acceptance the project will have and will directly determine the level and amount of sponsorship that will be required.
“Bleeding Edge” Technology Changes
It should come as no surprise that a project that will be implementing a new technology, whether it's a new piece of computer hardware, a new software application, or cutting–edge technology and processes will inject larger amounts of risk and uncertainty based on how revolutionary the technology and the technological impact. This is not to say that bleeding edge technologies need to be avoided but rather when you classify a project as bleeding edge, then a heightened awareness of risk assessment and risk mitigation needs to be put into place.
Sponsors Missing In Action
Everyone understands that a project without a sponsor runs the risk of failing. Though there are projects that do indeed succeed without a sponsor or at best has a “figure–head” sponsor, many death march projects exhibit a common problem of not having a sponsor. A sponsor becomes even more critical to project success when the project involves a cultural change in the organization, a high expectation on financial return or there is large capital investment.
Often overlooked, which can be a main reason for a death march, are sponsors that are sponsoring projects that affect other work groups where the sponsor has no or limited functional responsibility. Hence, you have a sponsor with no authority similar to the project manager that may feel a need for additional authority. (Whitten, 2007, p. 123)
If sponsorship is missing, then by all means stop the project and reassess with the sponsors that the need is there. Perhaps there are other projects that have now become more important. Death march projects should not be caused by a lack of sponsorship.
Financial Investment and Returns
The higher the financial investment needed for the project, the more likely the project can grow into a death march project. At what level does the investment reach a critical amount where the project potentially becomes a death march? The answer is that it is relative to the business. A small mom–and-pop business cannot take on the same dollar amount that a Fortune 500 company can absorb. So it's not the amount but rather the percentage of the investment.
A project with a very high return on investment may also be on the death march track. If the expectation is for the project to deliver the predicted returns than the pressure for project success will rise substantially and reach the point where decision making may become jeopardized.
Playing Well Together
Once a project is approved and signed off, all resources and support groups need to get in line as the project parade is about to begin. Questioning the validity of the project should be put aside and replaced with a focus on seeing the project through implementation. Negativity and skepticism which often times start with a few individuals or perhaps one influential individual can spread rapidly like a forest fire and can be a contributing cause for a death march project.
By nature some groups are very protective of their turf and resent any infringement on their area of responsibility. Others are unable to grasp what the other group requires. Often times there are no readily apparent “what's in it for me”. Whatever the case, the project manager must resort to his communication skills in order to get the groups to work together to achieve project completion.
You should be aware of some project metrics that, if they can't be explained, will point to a death march:
(1) 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. (Yourdon, 2004, p. 2)
(2) “The staff has been reduced to less than half the number that would normally be assigned to a project of this size and scope;” (Yourdon, 2004, p. 2) While looking at the number of resources available, take a close look at the amount of time each resource has been allocated to this project. If it's greater than 60 percent, now is the time to question whether that resource has that much time to dedicate to this project. If it's 100% seriously question the validity. Very rarely will you find a resource time to be 100 percent. Be mindful of resources coming from multiple functional areas. Are they the right resources and can the time commitments their manager assigned be met? (3) Take a step back, look at the overall makeup of the project, and ask yourself does this pass sanity and reasonableness tests? Draw on your experiences for this “gut” check and if you feel you need second opinions, don't be shy about asking others for their input.
Often overlooked is how many project managers are assigned to this project. On a large project, you will often see multiple project managers each assigned to manage a certain piece of the project. In theory, this practice should be very helpful in managing tasks on the critical path, controlling the scope, and maximizing resources but there needs to be an overarching project manager who ultimately has total responsibility in resolving conflicts, looking out for special interests, and seeing the project through to completion.
Lastly, are the project savings too good to be true? Ask for proof that these are real savings and not savings that were put into place to justify someone's pet project or secure a future promotion.
Other Tell–Tale Signs and Warnings of a Death March Project
Why Doesn't Anyone Want this Project?
Side–bar conversations during meetings and discussions around the water cooler might all be implying the same thing; that no one, under no uncertain terms, wants to take on this project. Why is that? Do they feel they are unqualified or do they know something that no one else does? It should be disturbing and raise a red flag for you when multiple individuals all are saying the same thing. In the event you become the project manager, take the time as you hear these conversations to determine what is driving them and are they founded on actual facts.
What Happened to the Previous Project Manager?
For an existing project, if you are tapped on the shoulder and asked to assume the project manager role, your first question ought to be what happened to the previous project manager? A vague response or a response “he decided to move on” should raise your awareness that this project might have some very significant challenges. Gain access to the previous project manager issues log, WBS, status reports, etc., for your review. If none are found, or lack professionalism in its content, then you know this project may be a death march.
It goes without saying that project success will be in jeopardy if there is no project schedule or if a schedule does exist, has it been kept up–to-date? Do you have team members referring to the Gantt chart as their project plan? If so, then a first step is to set the record straight and begin identifying the parts of the project plan that are missing. Analyze your progress on the schedule and determine what is completed and what is left. Then, most importantly, of what that is left, how much time it will take to finish those tasks. Consider for a moment, this dialogue:
“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to walk from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don't much care where –”said Alice.
“Then it doesn't matter which way you walk,” said the cat.
…. So long as I get somewhere, Alice added as an explanation.” (Carroll, 1989, pp. 63–64)
Don't expect your death march to take a path to recovery if you don't give it the direction it needs. A surprising number of projects wander aimlessly on a death march due to a lack of clear cut tasks, due dates, and resources identified to accomplish those tasks. Additionally, acceptance and approval of the project schedule is mandatory to achieve project completion while effective earned value metrics can insure that you are aware of your progress.
Assembling Your Parade
Hard and Soft Project Management Skills
Rock solid project management skills are needed to successfully lead a death march project. Even more important is the ability to take those skills and be able to use them in an appropriate manner with the project team. For example, a PERT chart that no one understands will have no value to your team. Query the sponsors and stakeholders and make certain you understand what they need from you and in what format. Let's now begin looking into specific skills you will need and how to incorporate them into our project parade.
Many parades have individuals dressed up as characters that walk along the parade route engaging with the parade attendees and, without speaking, can put a big smile on the faces of young and old alike. These soft characters play a vital role in the enjoyment of the parade; so too will your soft skills play a vital role in managing a death march.
Do not underestimate the value of communication when dealing with a death march. Verbal communication is needed frequently. It needs to be direct, clearly understood and tailored to the recipient. Due to the many moving parts of the death march, a project manager must be a skilled communicator.
Much like our walking parade characters, gestures and body language are very important in face- to–face communications. Every appropriate means of communication needs to be employed during our parade ranging from Twitter to e–mails to formal procedure policy manuals.
Remember that some parade characters can scare young people; likewise your project communication cannot scare your project team. By “scare” I mean, an earned value report, PERT diagram, or any project management software tool that you use that is too complex or cluttered to have any meaningful value to your sponsor, stakeholders, and team resources. Expect to reduce the complexity of many reports in order to achieve that understanding.
Think of parade bands as a means of announcing project successes. You need to take advantage of every little success along the parade route, especially at the beginning, so that confidence in the project can eventually be reestablished. To illustrate that a death march project is coming around, you will need to communicate each success and recognize each individual responsible for its success.
Transforming a death march into a parade takes preparation, action, and time. As progress is made, insure that you celebrate with your team. As in sports, momentum is important and capitalizing on success will help the positive momentum to continue. One thing for certain is that you do not want to wait to the end to celebrate your accomplishments but rather as in a parade, have your “parade bands,” interspersed throughout the parade as each minor and major milestone or hurdle is completed.
There are many bands each performing a different musical arrangement in a parade. So too should your celebrations be, each different and each appropriate to the success being celebrated.
The blaring sirens and flashing lights from fire and rescue trucks demonstrate the need to announce impending risks and the extreme importance of doing multiple risk assessments. In mitigating the risks, you need to choose the appropriate response to match the risk. The wrong response, if chosen, to a risk or conflict can be more damaging than the original event. For example, sending in a hook and ladder truck to handle a rubbish fire may not be as effective as a pumper fire truck. The point being, understanding your risk, using a risk assessment tool and then the skill to mitigate the risk is important.
Every significant risk that occurs in a death march project, and normally there are many, need to have attention drawn to it. Drawing attention to it is only the first step though. The correct response whether it is avoidance, mitigation, acceptance, or transfer needs to always be chosen carefully. As an example, handling a change in scope by extending the due date may work but may not be the best solution.
As in a parade, most floats are created or sponsored by an individual, an organization or a group with each float having a theme. So it is with our project parade. When transforming a death march into a parade you should always see, at a minimum, the following floats.
First, a very stately manicured float that has prominently displayed what the scope of the project is. This float should command everyone's attention and be the president award winner. The next float coming down the street should be a long symmetrical float representing your work breakdown structure.
Other project management floats (tools) that should be assembled, sponsored, and on display in your parade includes: (1) a PERT diagram that identifies your critical path; (2) an earned value measurement system that truly and objectively tracks project progress; and (3) action items register floats with each float representing an action item to insure that there is control and accountability over the items.
As you know, many floats in a parade have parade participants on the float. So it should be with your floats. Your Gantt chart float should clearly have your resources tied to each task identified. Sitting on your scope float should be processes that will be used to control scope change requests. Standing atop the risk float should be each identified risk that has highest probability of occurring and have the highest impact when the risk happens. Sitting next to each of these risks should be the risk response.
Does your parade have all the floats assembled? Absence of any one float or a float that no longer is moving should signify that your project parade is still off course.
Highflying balloons are used to heighten the awareness and draw attention of the project team to a proposed scope change, an impending task deliverable date, a risk, a milestone achieved, or any one of a number of important project items.
The very large inflated balloons depicting cartoon characters used in a parade draw the parade attendees upward to the sky to marvel and enjoy the balloon. Two important items should come to your mind as you think about how a “balloon” can be used in your project.
First, the balloon is an immediate attention grabber. What do you as a project manager need to have your team focus their attention on? What is on the critical path that is holding everything up? What resource(s) is struggling that needs assistance? Is there a deadline that can't be met? Has the sponsor requested a substantial increase to the project scope? Consider a balloon for scope statement or charter if it's being misused or worse, not used. Whatever the big ticket item is, that is the “balloon” that you want to inflate. Get it up there for everyone to see.
Second, have you ever noticed the large number of ground crew members it takes to control and steer the balloon down the streets during the parade? Though each crew member is only holding onto one rope, each crew member is playing a vital role in seeing that the balloon successfully navigates obstacles and remains under control. Likewise, if you have a “critical task that is holding everything up” balloon floating for all to see, is there a team resource that has dropped their end of the bargain? What needs to happen for your resource to pick up the rope? Is this an opportunity for you as a project manager to lead with the troops?
Clowns are used to inject humor into this difficult project. Injecting the right amount of humor at the appropriate time can help defuse some of the more difficult conflicts and can help energize the team to press on through the most difficult road blocks. Do not feel that you need to be a comedian and create jokes on the fly to inject humor into a tense action item review meeting or a conflict resolution meeting. Many times humor can be found in the day to day events that appear online or in newscasts. Getting to belly–jerking, tears flowing humor isn't what is necessary but rather getting your team, sponsors, and stakeholders to smile can go a very long way in creating a softer environment that then makes problem solving easier to come by. Humor can also demonstrate a compassion or understanding of the stress and pressure everyone is under.
When is the best time to have your “clowns” appear? It might be easier to identify when the wrong time is rather than identifying the best times for humor. For example, humor during the middle of a problem solving or conflict resolution meeting would be a disruption. Even these most difficult situations can benefit from a touch of humor; preferably at the end to signal a successful conclusion to the situation or at the very beginning to try to relax the air but still, very importantly, maintaining professionalism.
Our clowns, in addition to injecting humor can also create a sense of comradery or “we are all in this together.” To illustrate, the evening talk shows on television often begin with an opening monologue from the TV host. The intention is to create an air of humor and expectation of what is to come. Using a similar approach very often can create an environment that not only relaxes everyone but also assists in building general conversation centered on interests of your project team whether this is with your most vocal team members or your quieter project team members. To pull a death march back into a successful parade project, your team needs to develop a personal understanding of one another in order to focus on a single common goal.
Responding to the Early Warning Danger Signs
As with most projects, there is almost an unlimited list of things that can go wrong in a death march project. Each item that can go wrong will usually have some early warning sign that if we pay attention to, can most times help get in front of the problem and begin bringing it to resolution. As an example, do you see interest waning from team members? Do you sense that the lack of interest might cause a deadline not to be met? If so, then you need to step in and take corrective action. A disinterested resource can be caused by multiple things ranging from too many other priorities to burnout on the project. Regardless of the reason, it needs to get resolved by the project manager.
If you are taking on a death march that is already “marching” then initially there is no need to look for early warning signs as they have already happened and apparently no one recognized them or chose to ignore them. One of your roles as the “grand marshal” is to look far enough ahead to anticipate problems and be able to resolve them before the parade comes through.
Up All Night and Alternatives to Alternatives
What keeps you up all night? What do you effectively do to manage the up–all-night syndrome? Is your worrying getting you nowhere and without any resolution? At times when you might least expect it, a thought or partial thought comes to you that if given time to develop, think through and discuss may in fact lead to a resolution on a problem. Take advantage of these thoughts by always having available a mechanism to record these ideas whether it be a piece of paper on your bed stand, a smart phone app for recording notes or a digital recorder.
With normal projects you identify each risk that might occur, focus on the highest impact and highest probability of occurring and develop a risk response. With a death march project, you will want to have multiple alternatives should your first risk response fail. In fact, go to a level of five magnitudes or until all hope is lost. Progressively, each remediation action will be more extreme and more difficult to undo then the previous one. Each action you take will be an attempt to keep the project on track as your environment is changing.
Developing alternative actions requires that each alternative action be thought out in advance. Sharing these backup plans with your team can have a side benefit in demonstrating your proactive planning and anticipation of problems and the expected action that will be taken.
What to do When the Weather Dampens Your Parade
Wind, rain, snow, and heat (unexpected events) will affect your parade project. Consider wind as an analogy. High winds can all but ground high flying balloons and can cause damage to floats. In your project, high winds could be the customer that is shrinking your due date or expanding the project scope. It could be the sponsor that is demanding an earlier completion date or is withholding additional project funding. Have a plan in place to assess “wind damage” and your plans ready to go to repair the damages.
Rain and snow can make viewing a parade very miserable not to mention the damage it can cause to all the parade entries. In your project these are the risks that come to fruition, the actions items that are not being met on time, the conflicts that resurface each day, and the resource constraints that prevent project work from being done. It again comes down to having proactive plans in place. Proactive planning does not need to occur in a vacuum. Sit down with your team and brainstorm alternatives.
Oppressive heat and humidity will sap the strength and energy from all parade participants from those driving the floats and sitting on the floats, to those holding balloon ropes, and to the parade characters walking along the parade route. Watch out for the devastating exhaustion that occurs during a death march and be prepared to take swift action. These are some suggestions: (1) force time away from the project; (2) alter and negotiate a delivery date change; (3) reduce the scope; and (4) split the project into multiple projects.
The point is, don't expect your parade to go on without a hitch but expect to have to endure various climate changes. As a project manager knowing what to expect and being in a position to address each problem will insure the project continues on course.
Expect conflicts, frequent and emotionally charged, when trying to change a death march. Avoiding confrontations will undermine any success the project may have been able to obtain. Because of what may have already occurred on the death march, frustrations, anger, blame, cynicism will be high. It rests solely with the project manager to defuse the emotions which can best be done by focusing strictly on the data at hand. Showing what tasks are behind, for example, and identifying the actions and resources needed to get the task completed is a better approach than identifying the resources that have not been able to complete the tasks.
How successful a project manager is in resolving conflicts will be a key indicator as to whether they will be able to change the death march into a parade. A win–win scenario may not be the best resolution. Go into the conflict with an open mind and with the intention of reaching a collaborative decision.
With an apparent hopeless death march project staring you in the face, the tendency of the project manager is to run and hide or not accept the reality that this project is faced with major issues. The sooner an acknowledgment is made that a death march exists the sooner the project manager can effectively begin remediating the project. The remediation process most times centers on communication that may have been lacking or may have been presented in such a way that it appears to the stakeholders and sponsors that all is well.
Getting communication back on track will involve knowing your project members. Who are the stakeholders? Who are the sponsors? Who are the resources? It's almost as if you need to hire yourself as an outside project consultant and come in and reassess the project and in many cases start from scratch in reestablishing the scope, timeline, deliverables, etc. If it does take that type of action, then it is wise to back up to the project initiation phase and determine is there still a need for the project? Is this a project everyone will agree to that should be done now? Can the required resources be committed to it?
To transform death march projects into a parade, each day should begin with renewed focus on what are the most demanding items that needs the most attention. Don't be tempted to resolve the easiest problems for the sake of resolving a problem. You will not find many easy problems in a death march.
Trifocal glasses allows a person to see up close, a medium distance, and far away. Think of your death march project in the same way. What major issue needs immediate attention? What issue is looming on the horizon? You can see it coming, it mustn't be ignored but you do have a little bit of time to resolve it. Lastly, what major problem do you see developing further down your parade route? It's quite a ways away but nonetheless if it's not addressed it potentially can cause project failure.
Final Thoughts on Keeping Your Sanity
Not for the Faint of Heart
Drawing on Experience
To move from a death march project to a “parade” project takes an experienced, seasoned project manager that is able to react quickly and take decisive actions. A death march project is neither the time to learn a new tool or technique nor the time to question your ability. Rather, it is a time to rely on your past experiences and the experiences from others. The project manager should not feel incompetent to ask for help from other project manager professionals with any tool, technique, or issue, which they may never had used or seen before.
Is your intuition telling you that something is truly messed up with this project? Trust that inner intuition to tell you that things may not be as they seem. Don't just recognize that a problem exists but also take steps to confirm and resolve the problem.
Knowing and Recognizing You're in over Your Head
Your project is the most important thing for your organization and as such you need to do whatever it takes to see to it that it succeeds. Even with the best intentions, a project manager will sometimes hit that brick wall or become unsure as to what to do next. Swallow your pride and seek out the help you need to continue to move the project forward. Here are some signs that can point to when help is needed: (1) Up night after night struggling or worrying about the same issue; (2) Inability to decide what is the best corrective action; (3) Deliberating postponing confrontation; and (4) Not understanding what your team resources are telling you or what help they need.
Remember that you are in a leadership role and expected to lead with authority, decisiveness, and confidence. Don't add to the death march by being the victim.
Horses Come Last in a Parade for a Reason
Parades are rarely assembled with horses interspersed throughout the parade. If it weren't for that then the parade would be continuing interrupted and delayed as clean up activity occurs. Likewise, in a death march project, you will want to always have your problems managed in such a way as to avoid any delays and clean up. Questions to ask yourself are: (1) Can I move this issue to the side and still maintain my “parade” of activity of going forward? (2) If I'm unable to set aside these “horses” (problems), can I manage them to an extent where delays are minimized?
In reality, it does happen that a death march project, after every attempt has been made to turn it into a parade that there is no other course of action but to cancel the project. Canceling a project is never a good thing but rather than marching endlessly onto oblivion it is best to cancel the project. There is no ideal time to cancel a project but there are time limits of when not to continue to extend the inevitable. Consult with the sponsor and stakeholders, identify what has happened, what will continue to happen, and then offer options one of which is the cancelation of the project. There are many lessons to be learned when a project is canceled. It is extremely important to do the lessons learned exercise and to fully communicate it out to all team members.
Remember you need to gain control of a death march and the ultimate responsibility lies with you. Do not shrink from the responsibility but go out and manage the march into a parade.