Crossing The Desert With Bad Project Planning

Johanna Rothman recently wrote an article with a poignant introduction: “A project team focuses on an interim milestone, works like the devil to meet that milestone. They meet the milestone, look up, and realize they’re not at the end of the project–they still have to finish the darn thing. They’re living the Crossing the Desert syndrome.” Fixing it isn’t enough – how do we prevent it from happening?

Unrealistic Scheduling

Johanna points out that when a team has to put in overtime (what we might call heroic efforts) to achieve an interim milestone in a project, the remaining project schedule is suspect. Johanna reccommends revisiting the remaining schedule, and we agree.


Johanna also highlights the way to recover – give the people on the project a break. Have them move back to 40 hour weeks if they were working overtime. Force them to take the weekends off if they weren’t already. In short, restore a rational schedule. If people worked through vacations or holidays, require them to take the time off.

Its been said that it takes two weeks of down time to recover from work-burnout. Extending the desert analogy that Johanna credits to Jack Nevison of Oak Associates, we’ve reached the oasis in the middle of the desert, and we need to stay there long enough to rest and rehydrate.

Unfortunately, we’re still in the middle of the desert, and the rush to reach the oasis presumably had merit. If a project schedule is so intense that we have created the need for recovery in the middle of the project, the likelihood of having two weeks to recover is low. Whatever drove us to push to reach the oasis is still driving us, so resting for too long will only make it worse. And we’re still in the middle of the desert. We need to focus on prevention.


irrigation to prevent desert

We can’t always prevent the impetus to work long hours on a project. We can manage our execution in a way that reduces the chances of feeling like we’re crossing a desert.

  • Improved estimation of tasks. Entire books are written about this topic, we won’t try and summarize ways to do this in a single blog post.
  • Realistic effort allocation. When scheduling how many hours a day a developer can be “on task”, our experience has been that 5 to 6 hours is the maximum (when working full time or a little more). For requirements work, this might even be a little bit aggressive.
  • Writing verifiable requirements. We need requirements that specify (or at least allow us to identify) when we’re done. Scope creep isn’t always implementing more features, it can be over-implementing features. With test-driven development (TDD) processes, the tests are written first (they fail), and the developer writes code until the tests pass. Once the tests pass, the code is done. Doing this requires us to write testable requirements. Practically speaking, this may only be realistic when using a continuous integration approach to code development.
  • Managing smaller work chunks. Timeboxing (more details) is very effective for controlling the size of iterations. Iterations are important not only for the feedback cycle, but because they reduce the size of the “desert patches.”
  • Feedback into the estimation cycle. Timeboxes become even more effective when we keep track of our estimation accuracy, and refine those estimates on the fly to help in replanning future releases. This is a key step in the maturation of a process or company from a CMMI perspective.
  • Better communication of release content. Planning releases based on use cases / use case versions is a great way to target communication for external (to the team) stakeholders. It can also be really effective for helping people avoid the desert-crossing syndrome. Essentially you’re providing a map (“The next watering hole is just over that sand dune”) that helps keep efforts in context. One reason the desert image is so powerful is that we imagine being lost in a sea of sand – the hopelessness is a function of both the reality and the perception. Better communication helps address perceptions, while other elements help with the reality.


Overworking the team is bad. Burning them out in the middle of the project is worse. Prevention is the solution, through iterative development, better communication, and improved estimation/planning skills.

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