Death march (project management)

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In project management, a death march is a project that the participants feel is destined to fail, or that requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because project members are forced by their superiors to continue the project against the members' better judgment.

Software development and software engineering are the fields in which practitioners first applied the term to these project management practices. Other fields have since recognized the same occurrence in their own spheres and have adopted the name.

Death marches of the destined-to-fail type usually are a result of unrealistic or overly optimistic expectations in scheduling, feature scope, or both, and often include lack of appropriate documentation or relevant training and outside expertise that would be needed to accomplish the task successfully. The knowledge of the doomed nature of the project weighs heavily on the psyche of its participants, as if they are helplessly watching themselves and their coworkers being forced to torture themselves and march toward death. Often, the death march will involve desperate attempts to right the course of the project by asking team members to work especially grueling hours (14-hour days, 7-day weeks, etc.) or by attempting to "throw (enough) bodies at the problem", often causing burnout.

Often, the discomfort is heightened by project participants' knowledge that the death march was avoidable: that is, that if the company wanted to achieve the goal of the project, it could have done so in a successful way had it been managed competently (such as by devoting the obviously required resources, including bringing all relevant expertise, technology, or applied science to the task rather than just whatever incomplete knowledge a few employees happened to possess). Business culture pressures may play a role in addition to mere incompetence.

The term "death march" in this context was discussed at length in Edward Yourdon's book Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving 'Mission Impossible' Projects (ISBN 0130146595), which has a second edition simply titled Death March (ISBN 013143635X). Yourdon's definition: "Quite simply, a death march project is one whose 'project parameters' exceed the norm by at least 50 percent." [1]

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