Project Management’s Seven Deadly Sins: Death Marches

Organisations can turn strategy into action by using project management. Despite the increased investment in project management capabilities, many projects fail to achieve their goals.
This is the third article in a series. We explore how death marches can cause huge waste of precious resources.
These marches, in which a project seems doomed to fail, but participants are forced to go on the journey against their better judgment, are one of the “seven deadly sins”, originally formulated by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper “Lies, damned lie and project plans”: Recurring human mistakes that can ruin project planning.
Skarbek often jumps into situations where key client projects are in crisis. Is it malpractice in project management or environmental factors that led to failure such as lack of commitment, sponsorship, or commitment?
Pinto’s seven deadly Sins offer some insight for project managers who are quick to point out that their projects were well managed, but that external factors conspired against them. These insights can make it question whether the profession really got it right.
Are there ever times when projects felt like a hopeless slog to achieve goals that rationally cannot be achieved? These ‘death marches” persist even though project managers are in control of their project parameters. Pinto cites Yourdon’s criteria for what constitutes project death march:
Launching takes less time than if you use a professional estimating process like the one we discussed in our last article, “Massaging The Plan”.
The project scope requires half the number of people available.
The budget is only half of what is required to deliver the scope
These project death marches are often doomed to fail. However, the process of failure must be especially painful due to the lack of hope provided by such constraints.
Although there are some project teams that can do the impossible, we have found that they only work in very limited circumstances. A team that is highly motivated and has one mission-critical project to focus on gives them the freedom to be creative and flexible in their approach.
These are not the conditions we see in our clients’ cases. In Life Science and FMCG, large project teams are constantly stretched across a portfolio of projects, so that no one gets the chance to pull off a miracle.
We are also able to see Yourdon’s second and first criteria in action.
Realistic launch times can be cut by factors such as naive promises made without project team input, pressing market-driven concerns or top-down pressure where careers are at stake.
We also see other common conditions that set the stage for death marches, such as the lack of processes to prioritize projects, which immediately overextends resources beyond what is possible.
If they don’t pick up on the resource overload, then weak stage gate processes could also prolong death marches.
Finally, sponsors can make projects go bust by failing to balance their responsibility to move a project forward with their obligation to listen to those who are close to the project and have important issues to raise.
Concerning the two last criteria of Yourdon’s, we find that organisations are more likely to run short of money than people as their activities portfolio is expanded. Human resources are considered infinitely scalable.
Leaders don’t have to make difficult decisions if they don’t have a transparent resourcing plan for their portfolio of projects. They can also start as many projects as they want to fill their pipeline gaps.
As the project teams embark upon their death marches, not one of them will be delivered on time! How can this wasteful activity be avoided? Fr