How to kill a Zombie Project
Zombie – /ˈzɒmbi/ (noun):- (in popular fiction): a person or reanimated corpse that has been turned into a creature capable of movement but not of rational thought, which feeds on human flesh.
It’s not only people who can become zombies; it’s projects too. Have you ever encountered a project – or proposed project – that refuses to die? You’ve chopped off its limbs and buried it, but it still manages to resurrect itself. Even when you think it’s gone, it pops up at your next project board, maybe in a slightly different guise, taking up time and distracting from more important activities.
Maybe it is a project that has been around for years, feeding on money and resources, but never delivering anything. Or it might be a project idea that has struggled to get support but gets continually re-presented. We shall refer to these as “zombies”. It might be worth thinking about one of your own “zombies” as you read this.
It is very tempting to take a zombie on head-on, as you probably feel that you have logic and right on your side, but we respectfully suggest a more measured approach. Our starting point is that direct attempts to kill the zombie thus far, whether by you or others, have been unsuccessful (otherwise it wouldn’t still be around).
The first things to consider are:
- Why does it exist? At one point, it may have been a great idea. Maybe it had benefits for a particular department, or it made sense when the business had a different structure or products. Perhaps it had a particularly vocal senior supporter.
- Why won’t it die? It still has enough supporters – either because they believe in it or because they have already invested so much time and energy. Or it might actually just be a good project.
If you have come to that conclusion that the zombie must die, then there should be sensible reasons for that – it is not aligned to current strategy, it has been superseded by other projects or events, or it will never deliver enough benefit to be prioritised. Sometimes, there are just so many things happening that you need to clear away any distractions so you can see the wood for the trees.
Then comes the difficult bit; actually killing it once and for all. Have we ever managed to kill a zombie project? Yes, using both analysis and sensitivity. If you are telling someone, or a group, that their project will never be delivered, won’t generate the benefits they had hoped for, or is no longer relevant in the company/environment, then you are more likely to get their support if you can offer them an alternative, such as:
- Including part of their requirements in a different project
- Asking them to support other projects beneficial for their department or area of interest
- Involving their team in other, relevant projects
While you are delivering an unwanted message to one person, it is often the case that they are representing a team, department or business area for which the project is a high priority (even if it is a low priority in the big scheme of things) and that is the message that they have to deliver. We believe that you can never lose sight of that impact.
Linked to this is timing. The opportunities for killing off zombie projects, or at least doing a critical review, are often after an agreed threshold has been reached, e.g. a project has been on the list for 2 years but never started; when you take on a new project, programme or department and have the opportunity to do a full review of everything, or; a large, company-wide project is about to take place, e.g. core system replacement, so all resources should be focused on that.
Last, but not least, what prevents resurrection? If it is an active project, it should be formally closed down; if it is a project proposal, it should be formally rejected by the appropriate committee. Keeping a log of closed/rejected projects with a detailed explanation of the rationale makes it easier to identify it if it resurfaces, particularly for a new project manager who might not know the history.
Killing a zombie is not easy so, if you can, stop them being created in the first place.