Beware the ‘Zombie Project’

Insights | 09 October 2017

A zombie project is a project that refuses to die, no matter what goes wrong.

Need more information to spot the un-dead in your project portfolio? Here’s how Tech Republic[1] defines it:

“…an initiative that lost its way and careened out of control, but, due to the difficulties associated with admitting failure, limped on for years, wasting resources and careers along the way.”

Yikes — wasting careers!

No one wants that to happen. Here are several ways you can make sure ‘zombie’ projects stay away for good, no garlic necklaces required:

Always Ask Why

A Girl’s Guide to Project Management[2] implores you to always consider the power of “why”:

“Like the zombies in films, they are mindless,” blogger Elizabeth Harrin writes. “The project managers and the teams leading them don’t ask the basic question – why? Why should we do it like this? Why are we doing this project at all? If these projects can’t be rescued and turned into something useful, they should be closed. After all, they are sucking up valuable resources that could be put to better use working on something else.”

Beware the Small Successes

A 2017 Forbes article[3] rightly points out that if zombie projects were truly DOA, someone probably would have acted already.

“The more insidious zombie projects trundle along indefinitely, hitting the narrow milestones they require to keep going but failing on strategic objectives. They have enough life in them to be a drain on the organisation’s resources, but they never have any real possibility of becoming a driver of profit and growth,” the article goes.

Don’t be OK with Mediocrity

This is the sly cousin to the zombie project that succeeds at small but ultimately inconsequential milestones: the overall “mediocre” project. Ultramarathoner and entrepreneur Joel Runyon forces projects out of the mediocre zone with something he calls a “time bomb”[4] Here’s the text of the exploding deadline pledge he makes to himself:

If _______________ (project name) doesn’t achieve  _______________ (directly measurable metric of success) by __/__/____ (specific date less than 6 months in the future), _______________ (project name) automatically shuts down. I’ll cease future work on it and the automatic consequence of goes into effect and I have to shoot my project in the face (figuratively) and walk away.

Tough love in action.

Know the Stakes Can Get Really, Really High

Low-level failure can be scary enough, but in case that’s not enough, it might help to remember there are those true high-profile failures, some of which could have sprung from the records of zombie projects someone should have killed a while back.

  • A $110 million Integrated National Crime Information System. Abandoned in 1999 at $40 million over budget.
  • TiVo’s non-working Caspa download service.
  • The government’s $1.35 billion contribution to ultra-fast broadband with few connections to show for it.

Now that you’re armed with enough knowledge to keep zombie projects at bay in the future, don’t forget you still may have to hit the kill switch in the present. What’s the best way to do that:

    • Don’t equate shutting down a project with failure. It takes courage to make this call.Tweet: Don’t equate shutting down a project with failure. It takes courage to make this call. [@PMPartners]
  • Document learnings. Every stumble is an opportunity to share wisdom.Tweet: Document learnings. Every stumble is an opportunity to share wisdom. [@PMPartners] Don’t sweep all you’ve discovered under a rug. Pay it forward.
  • Keep perspective. At the end of the day, no one is perfect. That goes for you and your team. If you feel yourself getting too emotional, enlist someone outside of the project to help you make the call.

Above all, know that despite their ultra-scary name, zombie projects can be useful wake-up calls for vigilance and that’s always a fantastic (and living) reminder to heed.

Our Portfolio Management and Governance services help you maximise the value of your projects and programmes. We provide a holistic view of all project and programme work, analyse value, priority, capacity and capability to enable key decisions.

Contact us today on 1300 70 13 14.


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