I'm looking for a word which describes a task which I think is poorly designed and will lead to either mediocre results or failure, but which I have to do anyway, especially in a work setting.

The word "Dilbertian" comes to mind, however this word is obviously made up and is only meaningful to someone who is familiar with the Dilbert comic strip, so I'm looking for something which captures both the futility and compulsory nature of the task in a way which is meaningful to a broader audience.

  • 1
    At some stage you start calling it "daily business"
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 13:01
  • 25
    "My job" comes to mind. However, "Sisyphean" is probably the most "official" one you will find.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 13:22
  • 15 years ago, I heard the term 'pointy haired' used in a non-English-speaking setting, and the majority of people in the room understood the reference, including those who had never actually read the comic. It's similar to the term 'spherical cows' being understood, even by people who have never actually heard the joke. Given this, I suggest it's entirely appropriate to coin 'Dilbertian' right here and now. Refer to @Scott's comment above. (Your surname isn't Adams, is it mate? ;-) ) Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 22:53
  • 5
    "Fool's errand" is an option. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 6:52
  • my first thought was 'quixotic' but that is not quite right, as it implies that the person doing the actions is naively optimistic or idealistic about their goal, or chance of success.
    – neuronet
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 19:47

18 Answers 18


Consider Sisyphean:


(Of a task) such that it can never be completed.

It was a Sisyphean task - but Paul did not give in.
Not only do they lose the game but they are sentenced to a Sisyphean task.
It was a Sisyphean task of epic proportions that defied a normal life expectancy.

The adjective originally relates to the story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology:

The son of Aeolus, punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life by being condemned to the eternal task of rolling a large stone to the top of a hill, from which it always rolled down again.

  • 17
    I don't think that this exactly fits. "Sisyphean" suggests that you never make any progress, which is a bit different from being destined for inevitable and definite failure.
    – David
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 18:51
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    @David - I must say, that sounds like a distinction without a difference.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 19:56
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    I think there's a pretty clear difference between something that ends and something that doesn't end.
    – nobody
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 21:17
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    I don't know - I think Sysyphus made a lot of progress. Ultimately doomed to repeat himself, though. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 17:13
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    Or when you are doomed to failure by the mandated approach rather than the goal itself, a reference to the Augean stables might be in order.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 19:42

The term "death march" was used by Edward Yourdon to describe such futile projects specifically in the workplace. The workers know the project will end in failure, but they are forced to continue anyways.

It's very close to "Dilbertian", in that it makes a cynical yet humorous jab at workplace issues, but it has the same problem of only being known to a narrow audience of people. A more common workplace term is "sinking ship". It can be applied to anything that is on its way to failure while the people involved can only stand on board and watch helplessly. It might also imply that these people want to "jump ship", i.e. change jobs.

  • 4
    FWIW, "death march" could be highly offensive to some readers by trivializing actual instances of death marches as part of genocide, etc., similar to how it's offensive to use "nazi" to describe a petty tyrant or person whose views you disagree with, or "rape" as an analogy for some trivial (often purely monetary) perceived violation. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 5:11
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    Offensive or not, this term is widely understood. (And FWIW, "rape" has always meant a property crime; it became associated with sexual assault because women were considered property.) Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 21:01
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    +1. Note that in Yourdon's original usage, "death march" actually did not specifically imply that the project was futile or that it was doomed to failure (or perceived as such). He distinguished several categories of death marches; some of the categories had this problem, and some did not. But, as with many books with catchy titles, the title has taken on a life of its own. (Another example is "ugly American", which now means the opposite of what it meant in the book The Ugly American.)
    – ruakh
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 21:06

I'm surprised by the absence of fool's errand. Perhaps appending "obligatory" or "mandated" to the front to meet the requirements of the question.

Apparently, it means snipe hunt which could be another one or you could click through all the links you find which would be a fool's errand of its own.

  • 4
    In my neck of the woods "snipe hunt" is literally a "fool's errand", which is not the same as a Sisyphean task. A "fool's errand" is a task which you set a "fool" (unknowing victim) to doing, with the understanding that it's impossible. It's purpose is to keep the person busy, show him a fool, or both. A Sisyphean task, on the other hand, is one you basically understand to be hopeless but cannot avoid.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 13:42
  • ergo, the appending to the front to compensate for the inadequacy of the term by itself.
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 13:54
  • 1
    Wild Goose Chase
    – Preston
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 5:50

You already mention futility as being a characteristic of this kind of task, but the phrase "exercise in futility" is one I've heard to describe such a thing.


Wild Goose Chase

Lost Cause


a favorite phrase of mine is death knell http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/death%20knell

It means the obvious signs that someone or something is about to fail or die. I like it because it sounds so wonderfully dramatic!


Consider maybe the phrase/idiom: "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic"


Or perhaps that's straying too far from the context. You might successfully rearrange the deck chairs but it won't solve the problem at hand. Completing the task still means failure to achieve the objective.

This was a phrase that was bandied about regularly at one of my former places of employment. Everything we we did had that sort of quality to it because the powers-that-were were incapable of seeing the larger picture and thus assessing what actually had to be done to solve a particular problem.

  • 2
    In a similar vein, "making the bed while the house burns down." Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 21:04
  • These are really wordy. OP's original "poorly designed and will lead to failure" less words than @KevinKrumwiede 's suggestion..
    – 1252748
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 18:10
  • 1
    A more succinct version of these would be "turd polishing"
    – barbecue
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 2:58
  • @barbecue How is that equivalent to the others?
    – 1252748
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:10

There is an idiom of herding cats.

An idiomatic saying that refers to an attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic. Implies a task that is extremely difficult or impossible to do, primarily due to chaotic factors.
(Source: Wikipedia)

This only addresses one half of your request, the impossibility of the task itself, not the compulsive nature of it. But, that can be implied in context:

If I don't figure out how to herd cats in the next 24 hours, I'm going to get canned.

  • The metaphor was illustrated in a Super Bowl ad a long time ago...
    – jxh
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 21:05
  • Herding cats is too specific - it's only one type of futile activity, it doesn't describe all of them. If you said "I have to go herd cats" when your job is to count the grains of sand on the beach, you'd sound silly twice, instead of once. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 23:33
  • @GreenAsJade: If we are picking nits, "sisyphean" pertains to tasks with no end in sight, "death match" pertains to tasks certain to fail, "fool's errand" pertains to tasks designed to make the worker fail (as a joke or for hazing). As described by the OP, I would characterize the reason the task appears ill conceived is because the problem being solved was too complex for the person tasked with creating the solution.
    – jxh
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 2:01

The idiom Flogging a dead horse comes to mind.

... to continue in any endeavour (physical, mental, etc.) is a waste of time as the outcome is already decided.

  • 1
    Certainly heard this from time to time in the past four+ decades, but was more often used to denote someone's pet idea they wouldn't let go of in spite of the fact that it had been shown to be a bad (or at least loosing) idea several times.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:20
  • @HotLicks yeah I've also heard it used occasionally when you are trying to convince someone to do something, but they are stubborn and their mind can't be changed. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 2:51

There is the phrase Sisyphean task

suggesting or resembling the punishment of Sisyphus in futility or hopelessness: a Sisyphean task.

That connotes an endless and fruitless task, though, not just empty, going-through-the-motions.

Sisyphus was tasked to roll a rock to the top of a hill, only to lose control of it as it neared the top and rolled back down. For eternity.

  • Futile perhaps, but this doesn't imply failure to me.
    – Octopus
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:54

The universally-accepted term in software is "deathmarch" as @carneseca posted.

This has been the accepted term for at least two decades now.

  • 1
    I've been in software for over four decades and I don't recall every hearing the term "death march" applied to a project with which I was familiar. "Sinking ship" I heard several times, with the term "taking the splash" used to refer to those who somehow escaped from the project.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:17
  • @Hot Licks: so common it has its own Wikipedia entry en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_march_(project_management). "sinking ship" just means it's failing, but deathmarch means management are proceeding even though it's bound to fail.
    – smci
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 19:50
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    I'm just saying that it's not all that "universal".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 20:05
  • 1
    Hmm, first time someone has said that IME. I see the term all over the place. "near-universal"?
    – smci
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 20:31
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    "Death march" implies that a high probability of failure was foreseen from the beginning, at least by some; a "sinking ship" implies that the inevitability of disaster is now recognized, but it may not have always been inevitable or foreseen. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 21:09

Ugh. I know it's not one word, but I've heard "Like watching a train wreck in slow motion" effectively used to describe that kind of project. I like death march too.

Good luck! This too shall pass. :)


I would call it a forlorn task.

A couple of examples from a google search for "forlorn task" are:

The word's origin, from the above citation is the Old English forloren - lost, which might remind of a "lost cause", and another related phrase is the forlorn hope, which would be the case if your boss also thought the task was destined to failure.

  • 4
    In German there is the nice word "Himmelfahrtskommando" which exactly meets the OPs requirements. A task where you know it will fail even before starting it. It is translated to "forlorn hope".
    – skymningen
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 7:54
  • 1
    de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himmelfahrtskommando -> google Translation -> basically: suicide mission (= Suicide Mission), glory-or-grave-job (fame-or-grave-order) or suicide squad (= suicide mission, literally: "suicide squad"). Some good corollaries there
    – WernerCD
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 15:59
  • 3
    The germans have a word for everything.
    – ajacian81
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 18:47
  • Course, the word might be a page long. It's like they just take sentences and remove the spaces. That's cheating :)
    – cHao
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 14:05

The OED has this to say about Forlorn Hope:

forlorn hope 1 A persistent or desperate hope that is unlikely to be fulfilled: he urged them to stay in the forlorn hope of restoring peace [ mid 16th century: from Dutch verloren hoop 'lost troop', from verloren (past participle of verliezen 'lose') and hoop 'company'. The phrase originally denoted a band of soldiers picked to begin an attack, many of whom would not survive; the current sense (mid 17th century), derives from a misunderstanding of the etymology]

So that may or may not be appropriate. The military "forlorn hope" was adopted by the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, and referred to similar companies as described above - picked to commence a wall breach or to stack ladders during a siege, or alternatively to flush out the enemy from positions of cover.

"Pyrrhic" also came to mind - but that sort of assumes that at least one thing will have succeeded at the end.

There is also "Nugatory" and "Bootless" - both feature the futility of the task, but neither describe the mandatory nature of the task as requested. I think the only way of encapsulating both concepts is with "Dilbertian", otherwise you're stuck qualifying one word with another, e.g. "Mandatory yet Bootless".

  • 1
    Just a side-note about the etymology of "hoop". Hoop appears in Dutch in 3 forms: 1) In the sense of "a group of people", not necessarily a group of military personnel. 2) A "pile/stack/jumble" of goods. Also used in the sense of "a lot of". ("Een hoop stenen" can be "a lot of stones" or "a pile of stones" depending on context. 1) and 2) are closely related and which form originated first is not clear. They can even be mixed: "Een hoop soldaten" means "A large group/a lot of soldiers" 3) The verb "hoop" is identical to "hope" in English as in "we hope for better days".
    – Tonny
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 16:34
  • Thanks Tonny. Great side-note, that gives us greater resolution on the origin. :) The eventual English military use still stands though, and is more likely to be a direct antecedent to modern use. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 10:38

My favorite is Kobayashi Maru.

It is the name of the un-winnable simulation scenario in Star Trek, meant to reveal how trainees handle failure.


Don't forget morass; in particular, "a situation that traps, confuses, or impedes" and "an overwhelming or confusing mass or mixture."


In law, the idiom hospital pass is used to describe an unwinnable case, often passed to a newly-qualified member of the firm.

I have heard it used to refer to any task which others have rejected or deemed too difficult, and expect to fail.


Personally, I find "spinning my wheels"... onerous; especially when some capricious fool is making ME "chase the dragon" - in hopeless-pursuit of THEIR pipe-dreams. 🔚


In the military you might call such an impossible task a suicide mission:

a task which is so dangerous for the people involved that they are not expected to survive.

  • A suicide mission can succeed, and can be expected to succeed. You just don't survive it. That's different to a futile task. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 23:36
  • An extreme version of a hospital pass - it might succeed, with some difficulty. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 7:29
  • I would argue that this sort of mission "isn't worth doing" - but I don't have a death wish.
    – alex gray
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 3:34

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