Miles away from the comfort of my office chair are hiking trails that give both experienced and amateur hikers exciting challenges in the wilderness. Interestingly, these trails bear some surprising parallels to the daily challenges of software projects. While hiking trails and software projects may have their own kinds of a death marches, they share some eerie resemblances in how people make decisions while traversing them.
The Project Kick-Off
I coach IT organizations for a living and am responsible for best practices, capabilities, and training for my own organization, so I am more than familiar with death marches. However, making comparisons between my decision-making process and hiking never really occurred to me until now. Let me explain.
Recently, my friend Bob and I decided to hike on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. This was in preparation for our bucket-list goal of walking a portion of the Appalachian Trail. We knew any hike would be a challenge merely because we were non-active desk jockeys, more than fifty pounds overweight, and past middle age. In spite of our "condition," we were determined and very eager to get started.
On the first day of our hike, we set out to explore the wilderness and just enjoy ourselves. We saw many great sights and regularly rested with food and water from our backpacks. It was a great day with perfect weather. All of the elements indicated that this day would run flawlessly. In an eerie sort of way, this was strangely similar to the optimism and energy we have when starting a new and exciting project.
Knowing that our journey was only a day hike, at some point in the day we would need to turn around and track back to our car. The morning went well and we felt strong, full of energy, sharing a great time on a beautiful day. The morning was going quickly and, before we knew it, we reached the five-mile mark. It was just after lunch that we started to think that turning back would be smart. The second half of the hike would probably go slower.
Pushing the Team
We looked at the map and saw that there was a ridge ahead that had some spectacular views. Feeling physically able and still eager, I suggested that we squeeze in a few more miles before turning back. Bob, however, had a gut feeling that we should turn back because we were probably reaching our physical limits. Bob is older, more out of shape, and naturally more risk adverse. We all have a Bob on our projects.
We clearly weren’t in agreement. Without definitive proof that we were reaching our limits, we decided to press on. While his version of this story is that I convinced him to press on, we actually agreed to turn back at mile seven.
Around mile six, the path changed to a steep incline—a painful, slow incline—but we made it to the top and to mile seven. We felt great when we arrived at the top of the ridge and rested on the trail near the tall grass. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t as spectacular as we had imagined. In fact, there was no view at all except for tall brush and grass, but we still felt great about making it to mile seven.
After a break, we decided that it was time to turn back. The first seven miles were great, so the next seven should be equally great, right?
We were oblivious to the fact that we were perilously close to the real "point of no return."
Signs of a Death March
About two miles into the return trek, we realized that we were out of water and our legs and feet were becoming very fatigued and sore. Without options, we stoically pressed on. Two miles later (that’s eleven miles total), we were now becoming worn out. The storm clouds started rolling in, the wind picked up, and our flawless day was no longer looking so flawless. We now had an additional sense of urgency to stay out of the impending storm. Yet, we still had about three miles to go. With plenty of trail in front of us, we felt the impending gloom and we were literally in pain.
Have you ever experienced a software project similar to this? Doesn't this sound like the beginning of a death march?
Houston, We Have a Problem
The next mile became a struggle, as our bodies were not actually equipped to deal with the demands now being placed on us. The final two miles would only get worse. Our legs started cramping, each step was painful, and we were thirsty. We limped along, genuinely unsure if we’d even make it back to the car without assistance.
How many times have we committed to more than we can successfully handle on projects? Or committed without really knowing what we were committing to?
On the plus side, at least we knew we were very close to needing rescue.
It became apparent to us that our short-term view of what we thought was feasible became a decision that ultimately created pain, anxiety, and the possibility of failure. To add insult to injury, it started raining.
After a long while, we finally reached our destination and found a covered bench. We sat for a few minutes and then, after what seemed like an eternity, cramped and limped toward the car—a distant twelve feet away. Somehow, we managed to hold back the tears.
A New Perspective: Scrutinize Your Goals When Little or No Experience Exists
Pain is certainly one of the best teachers. And, while I've certainly been on projects where the team has limped across the finish line, our hiking experience gave me a new perspective.
I noticed how making decisions for short-term goals without the proper insight, perspective, or experience can have significant effects on long-term outcomes. For example, our decision to continue after mile five was clearly a mistake. I reflected on that precise moment—that specific choice—that led us to continue on. We couldn’t see the impacts of that decision at that point in time. We also had no point of reference or metric to assess whether we were making a good or bad decision. It boiled down to a lack of awareness and an eagerness to do a little more.
Then, I thought about some of the bad decisions I've seen in directing project objectives—decisions that created pain for the team and, in some cases, established additional barriers for corrective action. Instead of having conversations about our decision-making process, we would just state that it was poorly executed. We rarely considered that the original decision was the culprit.
In the case of our hike, I can now see that our execution was fine. The decision to do more was flawed.
My Take Away: Are We Kidding Ourselves?
When making any kind of project decisions today, I now ask, "How can we prevent this from becoming our fourteen-mile death march? Are we just kidding ourselves?"
I was actually able to put this into practice the other day when our leadership group was discussing strategic staffing. We knew that a decision to handle a short-term, nonstrategic project would certainly limit our capability to engage in any larger, on-target opportunities that might come along. So, we had good discussions around that topic and looked at the varied perspectives with our eyes wide open. We stuck with the strategic goals in spite of a small, immediate win. Since then, we've been able to apply that same concept to other growth challenges.
Are you surprised to learn that Bob and I have hiked again? We now have changed our behavior and are more in touch with our real capabilities. Our experiences are much more pleasan.t
So, next time you have a tough choice and everyone is debating an approach, think of yourself at mile five of your hike. Sometimes, it's better not to push the limits, because you'll feel the pain for quite some time afterward.