Recognizing a death march (and doing something about it)

No, this isn’t about a real death march.

It’s not about a bloody dictatorship arresting its foes and forcing them to trek thousands of miles by foot, watching, even delighting, as they fall along the way.

But there are enough similarities to what I’m talking about to warrant the name.

And I didn’t make it up.  I remember when I first heard the analogy and it stuck because it applied well.

What I mean by “death march” is a long, drawn out season of work towards an elusive goal.  If the goal is even stated and known.  Sometimes it isn’t, or it’s hidden behind in some bean counter’s (accountant type’s) head or in some private meeting of decision makers.  The first time I heard the “death march” analogy it was describing the tedious throes of a startup company being driven by uncaring venture capitalists.  Now, not all venture capitalists are uncaring – the best ones care deeply – but these were.

In addition to mystery goals, this kind of death march has some distinguishing characteristics:

  1. Efficiency takes a back seat to daily, even hourly goals.  Deliverables that purportedly enable business advances are vaunted as so vital, so necessarily punctual, that their achievement drives the corporate conscience.  And the way the organization gets there can be as manual and costly as possible.  No one cares; it’s all about getting it done.
  2. Fear-driven micromanagement is stifling and pre-emptive.  This of course adds to the inefficiency.  Gathering status becomes a job in itself.  Showing progress against a burn-down graph or chart takes an inordinate amount of time, but that is dwarfed by the time it takes to explain schedule slippage.  And explain you must.
  3. Creativity and innovation, the lifeblood of realized value, are tolerated at best.  This is not a quashing of “fun” in the workplace, it’s a buy-in for a uniform, utilitarian approach to the work.  If there’s a better way to do something, and you come up with it, it threatens everyone else as it threatens the lockstep of the march.
  4. People are leaving; newbies are confused.  This is the “death” part of the analogy.  Workers, even the best ones, drop off the march, departing to retrieve their sanity and joy.  When they are replaced, the new hires have a terrible time climbing the learning curve because no one has time and no one will take the time to help them.  Thus, the culture and cycle is perpetrated.

Can this end well?  Yes .. and it does sometimes.  But only when goals are known, achievable and bought into by the masses.  Only when strategy is as important as tactics.  Only when there is enough management commitment to see things through and to see them done well, remembering the principles of efficiency and productivity.  And that takes guts to stand up to the holders of graphs and charts.  Personally, I try to do that regularly.

Can this end poorly?  Yes, it is likely that will happen.  The practices are bogus and unsustainable.  Everyone knows it.  But fear keeps the march going.  Until what everyone fears actually happens – funds dry up and people get their resumes on the street or at least down the hall.

Am I in a death march like this?  Are we?  I hope not, but I can’t avoid the signs; they’re everywhere.

Even if I am, there is ministry and help I can give even as things fall apart – so that people don’t fall apart as well.  It’s clear that I should not merely watch out for myself at this point.  I’ll be okay; well I think so.

But I can certainly refuse to be fear-driven myself.  I can force myself to do creative things.  I can take the newbies to lunch.  In fact, that’s how we all stop marching like this – one person at a time!

And if the powers that be shut the thing down well then it wasn’t worth working on and/or they weren’t worth working for in the first place.

To be sure:

Isaiah 43:1-2
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Yes, it’s a faith thing for me; and deeply so.   It turns out that fear is no match for faith.  I invite all to try it.

Hatchet man to the over-employed

Aging has its challenges.  The physical ones we’ve all heard about are well documented.  And though not all conquered, they are at least, by-and-large understood.

There’s a tragedy I’ve had a front row seat to recently.  I’ve written about it some and it’s also fairly well known.  Well .. I guess I’d say it’s well known from a distance.  By that I mean that the emotional and tactical movements associated with it are not easily discerned.  We see numbers.  We hear about trends.  But I deal with people.

It has to do with the obsolescence of job- and life-skills.  I’ll say it in personal terms, as I process the new stuff:

While I know I work in a technical area where things move fast, I also know that if I sit on the bleeding edge of the latest technical development, I will 1) bleed and 2)  wastefully invest about 60-75% of my energy in things that never “pan out” in the marketplace, and thus, the work place.

But, if I go to the other extreme and ignore all new developments, I will miss the 25-40% of those which will radically change the job I do and will do.

There is also a raw skill gap.  I don’t necessarily have the ability to lean, adapt and acquire.  It’s often a question about how much time and energy I can and will give to learning.  I may sink into the false conclusion that I cannot learn.  I’m thankful to not ever live in that state very long.

Every field has developments.  As I’ve written before, if you drive nails, you likely have a pneumatic nail gun at this writing.  If not, you better be doing finish carpentry or something specialized, because you are outgunned.

I’m writing again about some people I know some people who never picked up a nail gun.  They never thought it necessary, or couldn’t or just won’t.  The details about why it hasn’t happened and isn’t happening really don’t matter.

It hasn’t.  They are now over-employed; paid too much for the work they do and are without a strategy to get to a better place.  And as far as their work is concerned, they are spectators and commentators.

And they’re angry with the reluctant hatchet man whose job it is to report on their unproductive and inefficient work.  No one likes that job, but as they say, someone has to do it.

It’s that person’s job to fundamentally change their work world and … They. do. not. like. it.

It’s a scripted drama really, and there will eventually be some third party intervention.

Now there are those who’ve decided to learn and acquire.  They are a joy to watch.

Thing is, I love these people.  All of them.  It’s devastating to watch and I’m glad it is.  Woe to me if it wasn’t.

And it won’t last forever like this; it’s not sustainable.

So I’d offer advice to any generation to comet because a chunk of my generation either never had it or never heeded it:

Never stop acquiring life skills.

Never get comfortable with what you think is important to know or to do.

If you even think you see a dead-end ahead, take the steps, side-steps, back-steps, over-steps, whatever .. to avoid it.  Because a real dead-end is hard.

Proverbs 22:29 Do you see a man skilled in his work?  He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.

I’ve read that many times and I know that skill is not static.  It is the result of an ongoing pursuit of one’s craft as it applies to the world, which changes all the time.  If that’s hard to hear, I will say what I say to myself – get over it, and get used to it.