The death march anti-pattern is one of the most painful to endure.  There is even a tendency to envy those involved in actual ones.  This situation crushes morale and feels like it will never end.

Defining the Death March Anti-Pattern

This anti-patten is so common we can go to Wikipedia for a good definition. [Click Here to See The Page]

“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 to continue the project by their superiors against their better judgment.

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I think the key here is the word “unsustainable.”  There are projects that run a long time and burn a lot of hours but are almost pleasant to work through.  The most significant difference is where one feels destined to fail.  In a good situation, it feels like the team is moving to a big victory.  Thus, a project becomes demoralizing to part of the group.  On the other hand, it is worthy of the effort to others.  This is rarely the case.  A typical death march sucks everyone into the abyss, and thus, failure seems inevitable.

It Is A Project Management Problem

Note that the perception of the team is the driving reason for determining the existence of this anti-pattern.  The product or solution is often unrelated to this anti-pattern.  The best project in the world can become a death march through mismanagement.  On the other hand, even horrible projects can go smoothly and keep morale high.

Key Indicators

It can be seen as a flippant answer.  However, the action of considering whether a project is a death march is a leading indicator that you have found one.  In this case, the time spent considering whether you are in a death march is proportional to the likelihood that you are.  Communication and clearly defined goals are also indicators.  When you see a project floundering to keep members informed or goals are regularly changed, you probably have the anti-pattern.

If anything is a perfect illustration of this anti-pattern, it is a downward spiral.  This is not always the case.  However, many of these situations include some example of running in circles.  Thus, a lot of effort results in no progress.

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Rob Broadhead

Rob is a founder of, and frequent contributor to, Develpreneur. This includes the Building Better Developers podcast. He is also a longtime student of technology as a developer, designer, and manager of software solutions. Rob is a founder and principle of RB Consulting and has managed to author a book about his family experiences. In his free time, he stays busy raising five children (although a few have grown into adults). When he has a chance to breathe, he is on the ice playing hockey to relax.

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