Team members involved in hopeless projects become dejected, stressed, and overworked. Are there any silver linings to working on a doomed project? This article argues that there are. When you and your teammates are stretched to your limits, you can learn a lot about each other, your managers, and what it takes to make a successful product.
The exciting book Death March by Edward Yourdon shows the main issues that can lead a project to a hopeless state. In spite of obvious and predictable mistakes, we still hear about many hopeless projects, agile or not. People involved in such projects cannot enjoy their work and project teams despair. Are there any advantages to being on a hopeless team? I believe there are.
So let me share with you a story about my experience being a member of a hopeless project team and the advantages of this situation.
During two years our project met almost all problems described in Death March and made its way from “Mission Impossible” to “Ugly” (counterclockwise).
Stage “Mission Impossible” (belief in the team power and in reaching impossible goals in the name of the team and the company): Our team was developing a very interesting and extreme e-commerce project. The team could bear all management whims and believed in the great future of the project.
This phase lasted for about six months until the date of “The Great Release,” when we had to deliver a new, redesigned version of the software. The whole team worked without any rest during a one-month sprint and we finished the release with a difficult night update. That night about eighty bugs were fixed and verified by six teammates, developers and testers. We felt as if we had reached the top of a huge mountain, but it cost a piece of overall enthusiasm.
Stage “Kamikaze” (everyone understands that failure is inevitable but the project is worth it to participate): After a retrospective glance at “The Great Release,” the first results of inaccurate planning became visible to the team. One by one, people became more pessimistic but continued to work hard. In spite of previous unsuccessful (quality-wise) releases, top managers kept on creating impossible deadlines and vague requirements and asking us to work overtime. But we made a mistake and mutely accepted the situation, and overtime became a normal situation. It lasted almost a year.
Stage “Suicide” (no chance of success for the project, the team feels miserable and has no inspiration to work): After a period of endless overtime work, the project team was involved in the development of a super urgent subproject. The timeline was unreal: only several weeks for development process, including deployment and quality assurance. Every member of the team knew the product would not be delivered on time. We expressed our fears about the incredibly short period of development phase, but managers pretended to be deaf.
Stage “Ugly” (manager tries to reach the project goals by sacrificing professional and personal interests of the team members): Of course, the team missed the deadline. In addition to the fact that our inspiration had absolutely run out, the super urgent subproject did not achieve commercial success. We continued to work under pressing deadlines and a growing number of tasks that had not been appropriately estimated by the team due to lack of time and unclear requirements. Managers did not try to cheer us up. They asked us to release something that would be called “a new version,” but we could only deliver something that looked like a trash can full of unpleasant defects.