The Dead Horse Theory

This dead horse theory was such an interesting concept that I just decided to copy-paste it here. Not only I could not find its origin, but also did not find any post on the Internet in a quality that it deserves, so I am posting it here in that quality!

Essentially "Dead Horse Theory" is the tribal wisdom of the Indians, passed on from generation to generation:

When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.

However, governments, educations, and corporates most of the time choose more advanced strategies, such as:

  • Buying a stronger whip!
  • Changing riders!
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse!
  • Arranging to visit other countries to see how other cultures ride dead horses!
  • Lowering the standards so that the dead horses can be included!
  • Re-classifying the dead horse as living-impaired!
  • Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse!
  • Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed!
  • Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse’s performance!
  • Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance!
  • Declaring that 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!
  • Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses. And of course… !
  • Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position!

Although all of above solutions are funny, they are completely serious! Lots of people, companies, and even countries are taking these decisions instead of the rational one.

The main problem of these decisions is not seeing the root cause. The root cause analysis is one of the most fundamental concepts to improve any process, especially software-related proecesses.


2 years ago, in my favorite startup, Melk Radar, it took almost 3 weeks for us to accept that we are riding a dead horse, and then we decided to dismount. Now after 2 years, we are standing on top of that right decision, and believe me, it is a great success story of mine! In lots of other startups or teams, I am seeing people riding dead horses for years and they are still taking one of those funny decisions one after the other. So take my advice:

Take a look at yourself and find the dead horses of your life!

About the author

Mehran Davoudi

A former technology geek! Currently a mentor and software architect, working as a consultant for companies with large scale software development.
Why dvd? Read about me (uɒɹɥəɯ)!

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  • I am due to literally assume 'a dead horse' government project whose reasons for stagnation over the past 2 or 3 decades seem to directly relate to the principles of this theory! I count myself fortunate to have come across this posting. Will apply the theory in re-invigorating the our dead project but with utmost respect for those before me, I promise! Thanks a million.
    James C. Okware

  • In most cases people takes a projects of which has no benefits for years, and they still keep on funding its to the last. according to the theory think twice and change direction.

  • Great job Mehran!
    I almost laughed to death, but as Kevin correctly noted above “ it must be considered with utmost respect for change and success to be achieved”. Amen!

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