Feeding A Zombie Project And Getting No Results


Is your organization stuck maintaining and nurturing a zombie project?

A zombie project is one that continues from year to year regardless of its effectiveness. It sucks the very life and resources from your team and organization says authors Scott Anthony, David Duncan and Pontus M.A. Siren.

Often many people feel these zombie projects have a birthright and should always be delivered regardless of the outcome. The organization and its leaders have strong emotional ties to its spawning, preservation and legacy. So no one wants to be the one to stop or shut it down.

Feeding An Undead Project

I’ve seen a recurring pattern within some organizations. They continue to feed the organization’s zombie project, event or business model. And they will do everything they can to maintain the appearance of life when it’s dead.

The result?

A continued drain of time, resources and energy on trying to maintain the status quo of this project.

Slowly, the zombie project deprives the organization of necessary resources for more effective programs, products and services. Customers are the ones who suffer the most.

Our Zombie Bias: Affect Heuristic

Often it’s very hard for team members to acknowledge that a project that they work on is not effective. Their job security is on the line.

And most leaders as well as project managers and their teams suffer from confirmation bias. They pay attention to the things they expect. And they ignore the things they don’t expect.

Even when a project team faces a setback, such as low attendance, decreased sales or major partner departures, they are infected with affect heuristic. Affect heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Their previous beliefs and emotions influence their decisions.

An affect heuristic is usually a swift involuntarily response not based on sound facts or empirical data. When we believe in a specific zombie project, we play up the good news and ignore the bad. And people rarely tend to raise their hands and say, “This project is a zombie project. We need to kill it.” They fear repercussions since most organizations have strong penalties for failing to meet a commitment.

Identifying A Zombie Project

So how do you know if you’re feeding a zombie project? Especially one that has a long legacy and strong emotional ties. How do you inject your team with a truth serum so you’ll get the full story?

The first step is using some rational, clear and simple guidelines on the effectiveness of this project. This will help identify whether you should continue, tweak or kill this project.

Here are some simple questions that Anthony, Duncan and Siren suggest using:

1. Is there a real market need?

Who is our target market for this service? Who was it originally? Has it changed? What is the target market’s need? How big is this market for potential growth?

2. Can we fulfill that market need better than our competitors?

Who else is competing for the same market? Have new competitors stepped into this market? If yes, what are they doing better than us? Should we continue to compete or change our strategy? Is there any way to partner with our competitors for this market need?

3. Are we meeting our financial objectives with this project?

Are we counting all of the true costs of this project including staff time and indirect costs? Or are we actually underwriting the costs of this project?

What additional questions have you used to evaluate a potential zombie project? How do you address the emotional resistance that is often tied to a zombie project?

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