Ants communicate via smell. They march along in a vast line with each ant following the pheromones released by the ant in front of them. This works great until a log falls across the marching column of ants. The group in front of the log marches on oblivious to what has transpired, while the group behind the log has lost the pheromone trail. The ant that is now head of the group left behind searches for the scent so it can continue its journey, and the ants behind the new leader follow without question. The new leader eventually picks up what it believes is the missing scent, but it’s actually the scent of the last ant in its own column. The column of ants begins moving in a spiral, where the first ant in the column is following the last ant in the column. They continue to march on in ignorant bliss, unaware that they are marching in a spiral, until eventually, they die. (Click here for a video of the ant death spiral in action.)
This sad story from the insect world is also unfortunately true in our modern corporate culture. We are too familiar with the infamous death march associated with development projects that involve teams striving to achieve an unrealistic and unforgiving deadline. A death march as defined by Wikipedia is
“a project where the members feel it is destined to fail, or requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because the members of the project are forced to continue the project by their superiors against their better judgment.”
The death march concept was made famous in Fred Brooks’s book The Mythical Man-Month, with the premise that adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
The death spiral supersedes the death march in that the death march is a singular event, whereas the death spiral is systemic. It is the result of organizational dysfunction where groups of people march toward deadline after deadline without reflecting on or questioning if there is a better way to deliver software. Even though the organization is “busy” doing stuff, they are unaware of the negative impact it has on its people and its value generation. Furthermore, because the organization struggles to meet its current commitments, it does not have the bandwidth to address environmental changes (such as changes in the market they compete in) and make the necessary adjustments to remain viable. A death spiral culture is a culture that has lost its ability to adapt and survive and thus is endanger of marching into oblivion.
How does an organization break the unproductive cycle imposed by its own dysfunction? Ultimately, the company needs to take an objective view of how it is operating in order to meet its commitments so that it can break away to a new level of performance without killing its employees. This article will address one of the main reasons organizations fall victim to the death spiral, additional factors that can cause a death spiral culture, and techniques about how to confront this behavior.
Not Knowing Your Organizational Capacity
Many organizations do not take the time to understand their own capacity to deliver value. It’s kind of like the kid whose eyes are too big for her stomach. She eats as much as she can and eventually is full to the point of nausea, but her parents keep goading her to eat more.
The overutilization of organizational resources can take on many forms. Two of the most common are overloaded projects or too many projects in progress. Organizations tend to overload the scope defined for any one project that is well beyond the ability for a team or teams to complete based on the project’s duration. This results in more overtime to complete the work in the time remaining, thus inducing another death march.