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."