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This Halloween: how to kill off your zombie projects

How to kill off your zombie projects

Do you have them? Projects that set out with the greatest of intentions but which failed to deliver and because no-one ever put them out of their misery they stumble on devouring resources with every uneven step they take.

Zombie projects.

Most CIOs, Project Managers and Project teams will vehemently deny that they have them. Then again most CIOs, Project Managers and Project teams never seem to have enough resources or time. So maybe it’s time to look under the bed, or wherever it is that Zombies hide.

So what is a Zombie Project?

In 1970, RCA created the first prototype of a video disk player. Many industry experts believed it was the future of home entertainment.

By 1977 most of RCA’s competitors had abandoned video disk research, preferring VCR, but RCA were resolute that its SelectaVision was going to be a hit so they continued finally introducing it in 1981 – 11 years after that original prototype.

It was meant to be a market disruptor. Public reaction was indifferent.

Finally, $580 million dollars later and after 14 years of research RCA realised that they weren’t onto the winner they thought they were and pulled the plug.

How could RCA now see the flashing warning signs? Why did it take 14 years to kill the project?

That’s the problem with Zombies, they kind of creep up on you.

So, do you have a Zombie project?

There are of course the obvious ones. The hideously late projects, the ghoulishly over budget projects, the projects that you think will never be complete because at every turn there is a new challenge. It’s easy to identify these and pull the plug but there are others that lurk in the shadows and I think that to identify these you have, to be honest, brutal and brave.

I’ve consulted on IT Projects that on the face of it were successful, on-time, within budget, led by a lion of a Project Leader, run by a passionate PMO populated by skilled professionals and I’ve pointed the finger and declared, “ZOMBIE!

There can be a number of reasons why a healthy looking IT Project can become a zombie.

Most often it’s that they’re simply no longer business case aligned. If a Project doesn’t contribute to your business strategy, if it doesn’t add to your financial forecast, you have to ask what’s the point?

Sometimes the market changes, sometimes the tech doesn’t deliver as expected, sometimes your competitor does something to make your project obsolete, sometimes your customer base doesn’t react to your innovation in the way you anticipated. The thing is, when you have set out with a well costed, perfectly laid out Project it can be hard to admit that it’s no longer fit for purpose and to be fair it can also be hard even see that it is.

This is why so many Zombie Projects amble on, they have become invisible.

AND often they are in plain sight but perhaps to avoid penalties or to prevent a loss of pride no-one is prepared to call it!

So here’s my 4 Point Halloween Zombie Plan.

1 – Get Help

Getting a second pair of eyes to run an eye over your Project portfolio can be a massive help in flushing out the zombie project. An independent observer won’t be afraid to call a zombie a zombie and they may spot what you’ve become blind to!

2 – Carry Out An inventory Of Your Project Portfolio

Do you know how many are underway? Do you know what resources they are consuming? Even the most organised project teams have benefitted from doing this. Like with the video disk, the chances are that your zombies are not performing a song and dance routine, they’ll be shuffling around draining resources while your eyes are on your key projects.

Identifying what you’ve got going on will allow you to edit your portfolio.

3 – Be Clear

When criteria for determining and dealing with zombies is clearly laid out in black and white you remove much of the emotional baggage that can come with Project termination. You are shutting down something that your team will have shed blood, sweat and tears over. You need to take the emotional sting out of it and make it more of a clear-cut business decision. Agreeing measurables like “Is there a market need for the Project?”, “Is the Project business case aligned?” and “Is this still the best way to achieve the Project’s aims?” can provide you with definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

4 – Reward Failure

You read that right. Part of the problem is that there is no reward for putting up your hand and shouting, “Zombie!“.

Whereas there is usually some reward for successful outcomes, even if it’s just another Project to manage.

Subsequently, teams can bet lost chasing the win.

Align your reward system with your business mission and goals, not individual project outcomes and make calling a project terminally off the rails a reward-able endeavour! Think of the resources and time you’ll be saving! Think of how you’ll be speeding up successful outcomes on other projects. Think of the lessons you’ll have learned. Aren’t these things that deserve a reward?

A good example of this is Supercell, where they celebrated game failures with a bottle of champagne and success with a bottle of beer. What a great culture! Supercell sank a bottle or two of bubbly before creating Clash of Clans! Elsewhere, P&G has a “heroic failure award”, TATA has a “dare to try award” … You need a “Zombie Killing Incentive”.

Address your zombies and you’ll unleash resources and energy you didn’t know, or at least had forgotten you had.

Every year, in June, there’s a thing called VCR Day. A global celebration of the technology that all of RCA’s competitors threw their weight behind back in the 70’s. There isn’t an RCA SelectaVision Appreciation Day … who knew?!

This Halloween, kill off your Zombie Projects.


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