A "Death March" project is a project which is destined to fail. The term "death march" in this context was discussed at length in Edward Yourdon's book Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving 'Mission Impossible' Projects.
I had the "pleasure" of leading a death march project and for me it was one of the most depressing experiences I had so far. In my case the death march was caused by the wrong decision to commit to an impossible schedule to get a funding for the project. We all knew the schedule was unrealistic but we thought that its better to get the money now and worry later. It goes against the notion of "Fail Fast" but at that time I was unaware of this notion. (Actually I've learnt about the whole death march thing only after the project was terminated).
Being inside a death march is not fun. I think that doing a death march has a huge negative effect on the people involved that usually outlast the project itself (if the team is lucky enough to survive this project). The funny thing is that I've seen companies that intentionally put their team into a death march in order to drive the team to achieve more. The logic behind that is that if you set a high enough goal and do your best to get there you will achieve more if you just aim and reach a reasonable goal. I feel that this logic is flawed on so many level that I don't know where to start.
Signs of a death March
I think that one of the biggest issue with a death march is that in many cases the participants are not even aware of doing it. In many cases people ignore the warning signs, waiting too long to take action. In that sense admitting the problem is half the solution.
Here are some signs of a death march
"Schedule is tight but if everyone works harder and things will go smoothly we can make it" - This is the first sign of trouble. The longer until the due date the more likely you are doing a death march. How many times does things goes smoothly? Isn't the team working hard now? Where did all the margins disappeared?
"We charted out most of the big things but some things are still missing" - Another sign meaning there is still work which is yet to be scheduled in. It also indicate that someone is does not even have the time to fully understand what is really necessary to get the release on time. Where will the time be taken to actually do the work? this time the closer it is to the due date the
"We don't see people working until 22:00 in fact not even until 20:00" - The project due date is in 4-6 months. Do we really expect people will work 12:00 hours a day until then? and if they do will the be effective at that for such a long period of time? 12 hours per day is not Sustainable Pace, If that's what will save the project the project is doomed.
"We are trying to cut everything that is not a must for the release" - Put differently "Its most likely we wont finish all the necessary work, I don't even want to think on the thing that are not absolutely mandatory"
"I'm really sorry, but something important came up" - The manager gives an excuse on why he cant attend the meeting which has been scheduled and accepted by him. Is it that important that it cant wait a couple of hours? or do you just have too much work as it is? and usually a stressed manager will most likely means a very stressed team.
And last, in most cases - you can just see in the eyes of the people involved that they lost their belief.
So what other signs have you encountered?