Dead Fish: From Day One, the project has no chance
of meeting its goals; most people on the project know
this and say nothing.
The goals of many IT projects can be summarized simply:
We need this set of functionality, with this accuracy,
with reasonable robustness, by this calendar date.
The team is assembled, and the statements of goals
and constraints are worked into detailed requirements
and designs; and they're published.
The big secret is that nobody on the project believes
that the project can be an outright success. Usually,
the deadline is not attainable with the other goals
unchanged. Mysteriously, no one declares that there
is a big, stinking, dead fish of failure already smelling
up the project.
As the Greek tragedy plays out, the project will
slog on. Then, typically a few weeks before expected
delivery, each project member, project manager, manager
of a project manager, and anybody standing remotely
near the project, will either
1. declare shock, dismay, and amazement that the
project is nowhere near where it needs to be for
the upcoming release
2. lay low and say absolutely nothing about anything
Why do so many people in so many organizations spray
reality deodorant rather than simply state, "No
way this project is happening the way we want. The
dead fish is here."
Many organizations are so driven for success that
anyone expressing doubt gets no reward whatsoever
for speaking his heartfelt opinion. In fact, if someone
identifies the dead fish in the early stages of a
project, upper management's first response is likely
"Prove it. Show us that the probability of
success is 0 percent. Draw no conclusions from the
other dried-out fish carcasses lying around from
previous projects; your project is different. Prove
to us with irrefutable mathematics that failure
Anything short of a masterful proof gets lambasted
as whining or an attempt to get out of some good-old,
honest hard work:
"Are you a weenie or a layabout? Take your
pick, but we doubt you'll be a part of this fine
organization for long."
In such an environment, it is safer to "try
hard" and not make it than to declare goals unattainable
as defined. Granted, sometimes it is necessary
to take on a very challenging project and give it
a real try before conceding anything. Absolutely --
but the difference is that on hard projects with real
deadlines, nobody waits until the last minute to declare
an emergency. If your project is building software
for a communications satellite that is set to launch
in 18 months -- and you know that if you miss the
launch date, the next opportunity is 16 months after
that -- then you and everyone else will be sniffing
the air every day for that aquatic scent. One whiff
of that aquatic scent and you will spring into action,
knowing too well that on a dead-fish project, action
waits until most options are lost.
Clearly, the dead fish is not only destructive to
organizations, it is demoralizing to the dead-fish
project teams and their managers. No matter what the
organizational culture, nobody is ever comfortable
sitting on a stinking dead fish for long. The costs
of keeping a dead fish secret are huge.
Just for Monty Python fans:
"This project's not dead; it's pining for the
"It's not dead, it's just molting!"
"This is a dead project. It has joined the
project choir invisible!"
"And now for
some pattern completely different. . . ."