Thought Leaders

The Seven Deadly Sins Of Project Management: Death Marches

Project failure

Project management is a key vehicle for organisations to turn strategy into action. However, despite the increasing investment in project management capability, many projects still fail to meet their objectives.

In this third article in a series, we explore how death marches can be hugely wasteful on precious resources.

These marches, where a project seems destined for failure, yet participants are forced to continue on the journey, against their better judgement, are one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, initially coined by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper ‘Lies, damned lies, and project plans’: Recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process’.

At Skarbek, we often parachute into situations where a client’s key projects are in crisis and the blame game has begun. Has there been malpractice in project management, or is it environmental factors that have driven failure – lack of resources, commitment, engagement, or sponsorship?

To those project managers who readily point out that their projects were well run, but these external factors conspired against success, Pinto’s seven deadly sins provide some insights that can make the profession question whether they really got it right from the beginning.

Have projects ever felt like a hopeless slog towards goals people rationally know cannot be delivered? Why do so many of these ‘death marches’ persist if project managers are on top of their project parameters? Pinto cites Yourdon’s criteria for what constitutes a project death march:

  1. The time to launch is less than half than that derived from a professional estimating process, such as that discussed in our last article, ‘Massaging The Plan’
  2. The people available are half that the project scope demands
  3. The budget is half that is needed to deliver the scope

Not only are such project death marches usually doomed to failure, but the process of failing must be particularly painful too with the lack of hope that such constraints afford.

There may be project teams that can pull off the seemingly impossible, but in our experience, that tends to be in a limited sets of circumstances, where a team is highly motivated, has a single mission critical project to focus on, and the freedom to bring a lot of creativity and discretionary effort to the approach.

These are not the conditions we ever see in our clients, where in Life Science and FMCG, major project teams are always stretched over a portfolio of many projects, meaning that none get the chance to pull off such a miracle.

We also regularly see Yourdon’s first and second criteria in action.

Realistic time to launch can often have been cut to these levels through factors such as naïve commitments made without project team input, pressing external market-driven concerns, or top-down pressure where careers are on the line and a rabbit is needed from that hat!

Other common conditions we see setting the stage for death marches include the lack of processes to prioritise projects, which immediately stretches resources further than can work.

Weak stage gate processes can then also help prolong death marches if they do not pick up on that resource overload.

Finally, certain sponsors can drive projects into death marches by not balancing their responsibility to drive a project forward, with their duty to listen to those close to the work who have important issues to raise.

Regarding the last two of Yourdon’s criteria, we find organisations far more likely to run out of people, than money, as their portfolio of activities is expanded, with the human resources considered as infinitely scalable.

By not having a transparent resourcing model for a portfolio of projects, leaders have no difficult choices to make and can originate as many projects as they like to fill their pipeline gaps.

Just none of them will be delivered as expected, as the project teams embark on their death marches! How can this highly wasteful phenomenon be avoided? From our experience, we can suggest:

  • Condition stakeholders to the interrelated model of project objectives as a basis for every discussion, especially time, budget and resources, and that an impact on one objective will impact another in the opposite direction – so they cannot break the laws of physics and squeeze all three at once and succeed!
  • Build a culture where there is a cross-functional, objective mechanism and ‘permission’ to be able to call out where the team has embarked on a death march, so the case can be made to redeploy resources more productively, sooner rather than later. The STP (Situation-Target-Proposal) format is an excellent way to begin a more apolitical conversation.
  • Develop a basic resourcing model. Often we see this fail as the approach becomes too intricate in environments where teams are shared between projects, functions and BAU (business-as-usual) demands. The desired effect is to force choices in what to resource, not necessarily to model fully how people expend their time in dynamic situations.
  • Use stage-gate checklists to pick up the leading indicators that a project is entering a death march and have the necessary governance to be able to change, control, or kill those projects early enough to rescue the situation.

In future articles, we will example the remaining deadly project sins before drawing together our insights as a whole of what may be dooming your projects from the offset and the overall strategies that we have found can be employed to avoid this fate.

John Hall is operations director at Skarbek Associates.

John Hall
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