Don’t make Agile Projects a Death March

agile death marchBack in the halcyon days of software development – around two or more decades ago – programmers typically worked longer than 40-hour weeks; sometimes way longer. This is likely still true in some business sectors, especially the video game industry. Over time, however, software engineers began to demand a better balance between their professional and personal lives.

One of the reasons Agile become so popular is its focus on improving the efficiency and productivity of the application development process. Most of this gets accomplished without breaking the programmer’s back. Still, managers need to be reminded not to make Agile projects a death march.

A Recent Trend towards Poor Agile Project Management

In a January blog post for Leading Agile, veteran IT manager, Dave Nicolette talks about a recent trend for Agile project managers to overwork their team to get projects into production more quickly. This traditional “Death March” approach was criticized by the industry legend Ed Yourdon in a 2003 book of the same name. Nicolette notes this management style is now being championed by younger PMs responsible for Agile project delivery.

It seems a book from 1987, Crunch Mode: Building Effective Systems on a Tight Schedule, is the current flavor of the month in some IT manager circles. As Nicolette sarcastically comments: “Reviewers [on Amazon] think it’s great that there’s a way to break every model of sustainable delivery, planning, and estimation, and force people to deliver on an arbitrarily short timeline regardless of the human cost.”

The Risks of the Death March Project

Death March projects happen when the scope of work and timeline don’t match the amount of human resources assigned to the project. In this case, project managers and software leads forego a standard estimation process and simply dive right into the work. Traditionally, this leads to a greater number of errors and the gradual siphoning of employee morale.

Whether or not the project actually met the accelerated schedule, the damage to the development team is notable, as illustrated by Nicolette: “The days immediately following the project are not normal work days. Some of the survivors decide to change jobs or change careers. Others take care of their new health problems or their divorces. Those who escape with most of their sanity intact swear that they will never again participate in a Death March project. They will not be available the next time management asks for volunteers.”

Working Smarter remains more Important than Working Harder

Agile projects, especially those within a company following the DevOps framework, focus on a sustainable process. The overall well-being of all technical resources simply matters more than faster project delivery. “There’s a common mischaracterization of Agile as ‘going faster.’ If all you really want to do is ‘go faster,’ you’re looking for the Death March approach, not the Agile approach. Good luck with that,” comments Nicolette.

In a software development world where engineers desire a balanced life, simply working programmers to death is the worst approach. If you want the highest efficiency and top notch code out of your team, “Crunch Mode” needs to remain in the annals of history.

Thanks for checking out the Betica Blog. Keep returning for additional insights on the world of software development. As always, thanks for reading!