Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog. You can check out the original here, at their site. While you’re there, download NDepend and take it for a test drive.
Society dictates, for the most part, that childhood serves as a dress rehearsal for adulthood. Sure, we go to school and learn to read, write, and ‘rithmetic, but we also learn life lessons. And these lessons come during a time when we can learn mostly consequence-free.
During these formative years, pretty much all of us learn about procrastination. More specifically, we learn that procrastination feels great. But then, perhaps a week later, we learn that procrastination actually feels awful. Our young brains learn a lesson about tradeoffs. Despair.com captures this with a delightfully cynical aphorism: “hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.”
The fact that we laugh at this indicates something interesting. Whereas we learn most childhood lessons and internalize them (e.g. don’t touch a hot stove), we don’t learn all of them this way. Procrastination falls into this latter category. We learn its perils, but we do it anyway, for various reasons.
As someone in the software industry, I suspect you can appreciate this. Even if you diligently get out in front of all of your work, your organization may not follow suit. So I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of so-called “crunch time” over the years. Crunch time occurs when you put a disproportionate amount of effort right before an important milestone. Kinda like waiting until the night before the due date to write a 10 page essay on To Kill a Mockingbird.
Today, I’d like to talk about surviving these crunches. How can you navigate them to come out on the other end with your team’s morale intact?
Beware the Death March
For argument’s sake, I’ll draw a fine line. Crunch time and the so-called “death march” can seem like the same thing, but I submit that they differ importantly. Crunch time involves working hard in a spurt to succeed. Death marches involve working hard indefinitely with a high probability of failing anyway.
The first step for pulling a team through a crunch is to ensure that you’re not instead dispatching them on a death march. If your organization has the unfortunate habit of getting itself into death marches, you have serious problems on your hands that transcend the immediate future. At an organization like this, I’d recommend looking for escape avenues and hinting to others that they might do the same.
If this sounds bad or like the height of disloyalty, I suggest a bit of perspective. Your organization is about to ask you to burn yourself out on an indefinite timeline for something that will probably fail. Unless you’re a masochist, what about that warrants your loyalty?