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Have you ever experienced a dying software project? A project where the RAG report has been red for weeks if not months. One which is clearly way behind schedule and I mean the pessimistic variant of the third revised version of the schedule; Where every new task brings surprises you wish you never discovered. The kind where everyone says it’s 90% complete and continue on to completing the other 90%…

If my experience is anything to go by, you would have been exceptionally lucky to never have worked on or near a dying project. Officially however, nobody dares to admit that the last time they saw any signs of life are now long forgotten. Instead it’s often called the strategic project, it’s given high priority, extra people and persistently occupies the agenda of management meetings. Every effort is invested in an attempt to save such project even if any outside observer would rather bet on a lottery win.

I always found it somewhat puzzling that people continue to invest money, time and effort in an enterprise that shows very little signs of progress and leaves no hope for significant improvements that would stop the downward spiral.

Past the office politics, complexity of stakeholder negotiations and intricacies of project management I have now found a sound explanation for this behaviour in a theory developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called the prospect theory. Kanheman nicely illustrates a particularly pertinent aspect of his theory in this quote from the “Thinking Fast and Slow” book:

The thought of accepting the large sure loss is too painful, and the hope of complete relief too enticing, to make the sensible decision that it is time to cut one’s losses. This is where businesses that are losing ground to a superior technology waste their remaining assets in futile attempts to catch up. Because defeat is so difficult to accept, the losing side in wars often fights long past the point at which the victory of the other side is certain, and only a matter of time.

Armed with this knowledge we are still unlikely to turn ourselves into a fully rational actors immune to the traps of the prospect theory. Instead we can try to create a set of objective evaluation criteria with a hope that they will help us make the right decision and stop development efforts as soon as losses become apparent and probability of success plummets. Wait, but wasn’t that what RAG reports were supposed to help us with?

Perhaps the least you can do for your project is to get everyone on it to sign a DNR order – “Do Not Resuscitate”.

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