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Dead Horse Theory: How to Resurrect a Failed Project

The Dead Horse Theory is a testimony of bureaucratic insanity. Like the story of Berlin Brandenburg Airport. After almost fifteen years of planning and five years of construction, it was finally set to open in October 2011. It did not. Despite its completion, serious construction defects kept delaying the opening. An epic odyssey began. Many years and billions of Euros were spent on fixing the issues and on keeping the project alive.

In 2014, German parody news outlet Der Postillon reported that the brand-new airport was now being demolished again. Purportedly, it had been deemed cheaper than fixing the structure. In 2018, reality caught up with satire when it was actually considered to rebuild the whole thing completely.

This national embarrassment strikes me as a perfect example of the Dead Horse Theory, a meme built around an idiom on the appropriate handling of deceased hoofed animals. If you’ve ever worked in government or the private sector, you may be all too familiar with similar projects running on life support.

What Is the Dead Horse Theory?

The Dead Horse Theory states that “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” In the context of business and bureaucracy, the meme refers to a failed project which is nonetheless kept alive by wilfully ignorant management. Sage advice. But let’s start from the beginning. Here’s the full Dead Horse Theory meme:

The Tribal wisdom of the Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” However, in modern business, education and government, far more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:

1. Buying a stronger whip.

2. Changing riders.

3. Threatening the horse with termination.

4. Appointing a committee to study the horse.

5. Arranging to visit other countries to see how others ride dead horses.

6. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.

7. Re-classifying the dead horse as ‘living-impaired’.

8. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.

9. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed.

10. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse’s performance.

11. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.

12. Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and, therefore, contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses.

13. Re-writing the expected performance requirements for all horses.

14. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position of hiring another horse.”

Elephant in the Room

I have yet to meet someone with experience in business and government to whom this bizarre analogy doesn’t make perfect sense. Would I be wrong to assume that you have no problem recalling your own personal dead horse story? A story told with frustration, passion and incredulity.

It doesn’t have to be a colossal airport disaster. Any lost cause or pointless project that mainly serves as a black hole for resources will do. The chance to save the dead horse’s life by doing a Premortem Analysis was missed. So to figure out what happened, let’s do a brief post-mortem on the dead horse.

Dead Horse Autopsy

The first underlying assumption of the Dead Horse Theory is that the horse has in fact met its maker. This makes it seem like pronouncing it dead was an objective and straightforward exercise. The implication is: Dismounting and abandoning the failed endeavour is not only possible but highly advisable. The list of “advanced strategies” reduces the seemingly simple solution to absurdity. It implies that the failed endeavour is an open secret. Yet, there’s no shortage of plans on how to solve the unsolvable.

It looks like we’re dealing with an exasperating mix of groupthink, wilful blindness and wishful thinking. Something is keeping people from doing the obvious, from dismounting the dead horse, from abandoning the lost cause. On top of that, there are no mechanisms such as institutionalised devil’s advocacy that brings these issues to light. Let’s brainstorm a few reasons why:

  1. Know-How: The will to dismount is there. But nobody knows how and what mode of transportation to take instead. Perhaps because the organisation has reached peak Peter Principle.
  2. Responsibility: It’s not anyone’s call to issue the death certificate and arrange the funeral of the poor horse. Instead, they might be engaged in an eternal game of buck-passing.
  3. Vested Interest: Whoever could make the call profits from the horse being deemed alive and well.
  4. Investment: Similarly, there may be too much financial or emotional investment at stake.
  5. Ego: As a result, the reputational damage of abandoning the dead horse is too high. Withdrawing gracefully feels impossible.

Whatever it is, living an awkward lie seems to be preferable over admitting the nag should be buried six feet under. That puts the virtuous and principled employee in a bind. On the one hand, you don’t want to pour fuel into the fire of collective delusion. On the other hand, dismounting and abandoning your post might not be your preferred course of action either. So the question is: How should you conduct yourself if quitting is not an option?

Solving the Dead Horse Theory

I’m of the firm belief that ancient wisdom featuring horses can only be addressed with more ancient wisdom featuring horses. In finding a solution that lets you keep your job as well as your sanity we turn to the art of Zen as taught by master Shunryū Suzuki:

It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The Dead Horse as the Ultimate Test

“What horse would we rather be?” Suzuki asks. He senses we’d probably prefer to be the better ones. But certainly not the poor or bad horses. However, it was not necessarily desirable to be or even become the best horse. Being the best can result in complacency.

Conversely, being the bad horse means you have your goals and work cut out for you. Echoing the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, it’s a mindset of embracing the inadequacies of our existence and working to remedy them in a sincere and consistent effort. If everything is excellent already, what’s left to do?

I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t add a fifth horse to Suzuki’s anecdote and apply the analogy to our failed project. Our perished horse won’t run no matter how hard we whip it. The dead horse puts our resilience and work ethic to the ultimate test. It invites us to accept our situation as it is, including the collective self-deception that drives it.

Accepting the Situation as It Is

Think about it this way. Who would you rather have as a coworker? Someone who blindly administers the self-contradictory status quo? That is a person who has become cynical and bitter about the circumstances. Or someone who accepts it as it is and has built a realistic strategy around it? A strategy that entails no longer spending energy on telling people the truths they chose to forget. Instead, we may want to elicit the reasons for the collective self-delusion; the unknown unknowns and the Black Swans.

What keeps everyone from acknowledging the truth? As Alan Watts once put it, the best way to convince someone the Earth isn’t flat is by taking them on a journey to the edge. That is not to say you shouldn’t have an exit strategy in place. By all means, prepare to bail out. But in the meantime, you might as well work diligently to bring the whole mess closer to its logical conclusion. Who knows, perhaps you find you’re not the only one who has made peace with the morbid situation by working in stoic mode.

Closing Thoughts

In the context of business and bureaucracy, the Dead Horse Theory seems to be about the troubled relationship between an organisation and the individual employee. About the complexity of human relationships and the ridiculous self-delusions and power games that emerge. As such it’s reminiscent of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

If responsibilities are unclear, competence is lacking and leadership is nowhere to be seen, an organisation may easily fall prey to a paralysing form of collective wilful blindness. In such an environment, the truth can become disruptive in that it threatens the supposed integrity of an organisation or key institutional players. The problem is that reality tends to catch up eventually.

Until then, deceased horses are an opportunity to accept things as they are. As soon as you realise you’re riding a dead horse, feel free to dismount and find one with a better health record. Alternatively, you may want to stoically commit yourself to the horse’s resurrection. In order to show the futility of the whole effort, or on the off-chance that you were wrong and the horse was only in a state of apparent death.

* * *

Around thirty years after its initial conception and fourteen years after construction began, in October 2020, the ancient ruin that had been named Berlin Brandenburg Airport finally opened its doors.