On deadly ground, fight.

– Sun Tzu

I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.

– Gen. George A Custer

You’re an idiot.

– Gregory House

 

“On deadly ground, fight,” refers to a recurring but poorly understood psychological mechanism whereby a small military force, facing destruction, defeats a larger one. They’re a few conditions: there must be no other options outside of victory or complete destruction. The smaller force must be more highly trained than its opposition. It must have high internal cohesion. 

 

There’s an orthogonally related phenomenon in software development whereby a small elite team successfully navigates an “emergency,” which is a combination of unrealistically large scope or abnormal complexity and both high importance and high urgency. A team ships an app in 6 weeks from scratch to save their jobs. A division completely rewrites the flagship platform in a quarter. 

 

The problem in both cases is that the reverse outcome, the expected outcome, is more common. And in software, there’s a propensity to admire the outcome and use it as a planning tool. In which case, either deliberately or through incompetence, a company manufactures emergencies over and over. Which works fine, until it doesn’t.