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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
“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.