If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.
Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated. Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;
- a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
- a competitor does something unexpected
- management support dwindles
- technology doesn’t work as planned
- a key stakeholder withdraws
- legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
- competing priorities from other departments/teams
Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.
We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.
However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;
- transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
- an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
- a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.
In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.
Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.
If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.
I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.
From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.