Beware of zombies (duh)

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You’re in a meeting with a cast of twenty people, and none has read the documents. The last 52 published minutes all read exactly the same. There is a project in front of you, and it seems to be unkillable. Where did it come from? And why won’t it die?

You might have a case of a zombie project: something that has all the features of a project, but the spark that drove it has long since departed. All you’re left with is a corpse that won’t lie down; a project that’s after your braaaaaaiins.

Why? Where do these things come from? And – since you’re here for advice – how do you kill them?

First: your average zombie is summoned into existence by someone with great power. Zombie projects are no different: in general, they have – or had – a senior sponsor with serious pull. Someone who could drag it through any number of boards and controls despite the corpse-y smell and the milky eyes, or alternatively resurrect it once it had been killed in those fora. Who’s got that much pull in your organisation? They might be the culprit.

Alternatively, it may simply be a project that can’t be killed. Less a zombie – more Weekend at Bernie’s. There’s too much riding on it for failure to be an option, so we march onwards with our arms slung around the dead weight. If that’s the case, you might be able to rescue it: the initial good idea under there is probably still good, but the weight of expectations may be too much. What can you trim? What do your users really, really need from this?

Finally, there’s the third kind: the one where the only thing sustaining it is the belief that it has to be done. This is a danger in any large organisation. We explore options, settle on a plan, and give life to a project. Before long, the senior sponsor has moved on. Six months later and most of the corporate knowledge is gone. Handovers are prepped, and our project is noted as something that has to be monitored. Reports are submitted and never read, because this team is always amber-green. Always a ‘monitor’, never a ‘control’. It continues, passing through team after team, onwards, ever onwards. Never bad enough to be stopped; never interesting enough to be noticed.

In every case, there are a few different things happening.

The first is the sunk cost fallacy: having spent a lot of money, and with the promise of benefits if only a little bit more can be spent, it’s tempting to just say yes. Resist that voice, because it’s wrong. Accept that everything you’ve spent has got you here. Now weigh up what you’ve still got to do, and how much it will cost you. Right now, the project has zero value. It’s completely worthless. You can spend some amount to complete it – or you can spend that amount somewhere else. What, honestly, delivers the most benefit for the organisation? For your users? For your bottom line? Ignore the clacking teeth of the zombie. It only wants one more brain. Just one more…

In other cases, there’s a problem with your culture. I accept that where I see a problem, other people see a well-functioning hierarchy. Tomato, tomato. I accept that as a senior leader you have a vision that may not be accessible to your entire organisation. However, if your team is telling you that your vision is trying to crack their skulls open, you’ll benefit from listening. If your colleagues can’t raise the possibility that they’re shepherding a zombie, then they’ve been disempowered and will soon be dis-brained. Or, more likely, your company will. In my experience your zombie projects drive off your more animated staff.

Finally, the problem of folks just doing what they’ve always done. There’s an interesting question here, because the enemy is the culture itself. There are exciting ways to incentivise colleagues to speak up, though they’ve got to be moderated. Bonuses for killing projects will result merely in a graveyard of work and over-eager trigger fingers. What we’re aiming is for a culture where everyone understands why things are being done, and challenge forums or shadow boards that draw on whole-of-company experience are an effective way for folks to get their voices heard – and finally put these zombie projects to rest.


Dividing lines are essential

This is a fairly tortured analogy, but I hope it helps explain why I think it’s essential to be clear about your scope.

Let’s suppose you breed dogs. You’ve got a thriving small business, and one day someone comes to you and says

“You’re great with dogs. Have you thought about training them?”

And you think, you know what? I am good with dogs. I probably can train them.

So you get together some funds and you build out a little training area and you put out some advertising and, before long, folks are coming to get their dogs trained. It goes well. You hire an assistant and think about expanding the repertoire of things you train.

Then one day one of the Ringling Brothers, or Barnum, or Bailey come to you and say,

“I’ve heard you’re a great breeder and trainer of dogs. I’ll give you a million dollars to breed and train elephants for me.”

You protest that you haven’t any experience in it.

“Listen,” they say. “Animals is animals, and these animals is mammalian. Dogs is mammals, elephants is mammals. They’re pretty similar. I’m not asking you to train whales here!”

You say you haven’t anywhere to train them.

“Alright,” they say. “How about two million dollars?”

Two million would pay for enough space for playful pachyderms – and at the end of the day, how hard can it be?

The answer is very, of course: because although breeding elephants is mechanically similar the processes, timelines, and specialist knowledge are quite different indeed. Training, too, has similar theoretical principles but their application is quite different. Your elephant training staff can’t train dogs, and vice-versa. Your headcount has exploded but the money’s not coming in. It’s mostly going out. There’s not many folks looking for trained elephants…

Offers from potential investors that come with demands for new capability should be viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. When you’re in start-up mode, there’s a temptation to grab whatever’s thrown at you to boost your bottom line in the short term. It’s not worth the effort. A good strategy is there to give you a framework to make decisions against. In a choice between immediate cash injection and sticking to your strategy, stick with the strategy. I promise it’ll work out better.


Centralise at your peril

With thanks to Steve Messer, a brilliant product manager. This post is better with a basic understanding of Wardley Mapping.

I’m going to go further than Steve and say that if you’re anyone, anywhere, whose service is based on centralising anything: be on the lookout for the next best thing. Be aware that you may not be able to survive it.