Death March

Early in my project management career, I had the good fortune to work with Julie.  Julie is a few years older than I am and had been a project manager in IT quite a bit longer than I had.  She was tough.  Her blue eyes would lock with yours and look straight into your soul.  When our group did the Myers-Briggs personality tests, my introverted patient architect type personality contrasted with her extroverted world domination leader type.  Julie would talk about big projects she had led.  Her favorite term was “death march.”  “That one was a death march!” she would say with wistful gleam in her eye like you get when you remember your trip to Hawaii – paradise lost.

I’m thinking that Julie wasn’t the only person I’ve known who, admired or feared or pitied by their colleagues and clients, has sacrificed greatly, sometimes unacceptably, to achieve their mission.  There was Tom the budget officer at my first assignment in the Air Force many years ago. I naively admired Tom’s dedication to building the best possible base budget and keeping it up to date (in the days before computer screens) by constantly working late and weekends.  I asked my friend Dave, a somewhat wiser and more experienced Lieutenant than I, how Tom did it.  “Well, he really doesn’t like his wife much, so he’d rather be here” Dave replied.  And there was Harvey, the Pepsi addicted computer programmer for the first system I was ever asked to manage.  Harvey’s company provided the software and system support to our business.  When my boss, another tough guy, wanted something done, he’d yell at me: “Get Harvey Pepsi to do it!” knowing that Harvey lived to code and wouldn’t sleep until the job was done if given free rein to make a change to the system.   I always hated to ask.  I wanted Harvey to have a better life.  Harvey seemed to like his life the way it was.

What do we want our projects to be like?  Is the best project a death march characterized by spouse avoiding hours and caffeine infused diets?  Well, not for me, anyway.  But, don’t we all experience these projects in our careers?  And, sometimes we look back at them with the same wistful gleam that Julie did.  When an intense project is built on a great team, a supportive organization, and a mission we believe in, the “death march” can instead become a life changing experience.

I’m reading “Extraordinary Groups” by Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan.  Geoff’s earlier book “A Consultant’s Calling” is a big influence on my consulting career.  In their book, Bellman and Ryan tell the stories of dozens of groups – 2 to 20 people – that became extraordinary.  The groups overcome challenges, work intensely, and achieve great results for their organizations.  Team members are personally transformed by their experiences.  The authors’ study of these groups revealed to them three sets of needs that are met in extraordinary groups (my paraphrasing):

  • Individuals who accept their current capabilities and see their potential to grow.
  • The group has a clear, compelling purpose and bonds to achieve it together.
  • The group understands the world in which it exists and wants to have an impact.

Some of the groups’ stories spoke of facing difficult challenges, working impossible hours for extended times, and facing no personal tangible rewards.  Observed from the outside, some of them might look like “death marches.”   Sometimes the individuals were very different people and/or geographically separated.  But, groups that met the needs identified by Bellman and Ryan often became extraordinary in their success and in the quality of their experience.  In the terms of my less well known blog, they found what could go right by imagining perfect outcomes, balancing who they are with what they wanted to become, and making the journey – however difficult – as important and fruitful as the end result.

I’m not all the way through the book, but every page seems to strike a chord for me.  I think every project manager should read this book.  But, one thing I’m noticing is that these two wonderful consultants rarely use the word “project” to describe the groups’ endeavors.  Yet, almost every group experience I read about is about a group doing a project – a one time effort with well defined outcomes and constraints.  But, maybe calling it a project would take away from the focus on the group.  Bellman and Ryan aren’t writing about project management as the reason for extraordinary results, they are writing about how people in groups get extraordinary results.

At another point in the book, Bellman and Ryan list eight indicators that you are looking at an extraordinary group:

  • Compelling purpose
  • Shared leadership
  • Just-enough-structure
  • Full engagement
  • Embracing differences
  • Unexpected learning
  • Great results

As a project manager reading this, which one jumps out at you?  Just-enough-structure jumped out at me.  As project managers, we learn all about structure.  Bellman and Ryan say “Just-enough-structure to create confidence and move forward, but not so much as to become burdensome and bureaucratic.”  I think that they are right.  We want to provide structure and discipline, but just enough.  We provide just enough consistently and flexibly throughout the project.  Sometimes a little more is right; and sometimes less is enough.  That’s our role, one of our important contributions to the group.  Another role is to help ensure that the group’s needs are met so that its individuals can come together.  It’s not our job to meet everyone’s needs, but we help create an environment in which the group’s individuals can choose to meet them.

Maybe that’s what separates a death march from an extraordinary group:  how project managers allow for personal choices.  If the leader of the group – the project manager – creates an environment where team members have no choice but to fall within her structure and trudge through to the end, that’s a death march.  If the leader of the group becomes one useful but not all important part of the group, its members can choose to engage in achieving a compelling purpose.  Doing this, they are more likely to embrace differences, learn, achieve personal growth, and persist to get great results.

As project managers, we have to see the other side of the risks of letting go of control.  Bellman and Ryan’s book seems like a manual for how to get there.  Thanks, Geoff and Kathleen.

Thinking about Julie, I’m guessing that a lot of her teams in her various pursuits of world domination chose to go along with her and became extraordinary groups.  When telling stories, though, “death march” is an attention getter and better suits those piercing blue eyes.  I feel better believing that.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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