How To Find And Kill Zombie Projects

According to Clayton Christensen , of the 30,000 new consumer products that are launched each year – 95% fail.

Compare this with the public, voluntary and non-profit sectors – where hardly anything fails.

The social sector must either be fantastic at launching new initiatives, or there’s a lot of things going on that shouldn’t still be living.

Scott D. Anthony has defined the organisational zombie as those initiatives that fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact.

They may be started through the best of intentions, but for all sorts of reasons they are failing. Just no-one wants to admit it.

Why is that?

Let’s look at zombies.

Night Of The Living Dead – 1968
George A. Romero , who sadly passed away this week,  created a defining trilogy of horror films between 1968 and 1985.

They were audacious for the time – he cast a black lead for his first film, released the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Far from being splatter movies – they were stories about racism, consumerism and militaristic aggression.

Ultimately the message from Romero was this:

  • We should avoid group think
  • We should never stop asking questions or just mindlessly follow orders
  • We should never lose our sense of individuality

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As Paul Hackett said this week  , the social sector can get pretty much get away with poor decisions without it impacting turnover. In other sectors the share price takes a hit and executives get sacked.

The lack of a conventional market, and no customer walk away point, means projects can be propped up artificially using someone else’s money.

We need to refine our skills at spotting and killing wasteful activities.

In the movies and TV the conventional way to stop a zombie is to drive a sharp implement into the brain of anyone who shuffles along aimlessly.

As tempting as that is for those of us who’ve endured endless meetings – we don’t need to take such drastic action.

Zombies hate just five questions:

Post Illustrations (6)

In an era of scant resource and unmet need, spotting zombies is a vital part of leadership. Innovation is happening faster than we can adapt to it – and freeing up resources is vital. Investment must equal impact or we are simply sabotaging our future.

As part of the work we’ve been doing on Bromford 2.0 we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value.

However it’s all about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.  We’ve designed this principle to ensure we stick to it:

Post Illustrations (7)

People are losing faith in institutions as they are not seeing the kind of social outcomes they expect.

Today it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters rather than the cheerleading.

There needs to be as much enthusiasm for stopping the old as there is for starting the new. 

RIP George Romero. Stay dead.


7 thoughts on “How To Find And Kill Zombie Projects

  1. Dear Paul

    Loved today’s article and your horror film connections.

    Would hate to put words into your mouth but what a great boost of confidence in the capitalist system.

    My dear friends to the left of me do seem to be having a really bad time of it accepting basic democratic principles . They also unlike yourself also seem to be suffering from a major bout of the glums That is a total lack of a sense of humour.

    These days I’m only an O.A.P. married ( 50 years next year) and without children so have ,zero knowledge .and must be by definition .totally politically incorrect.

    Thankfully a corrective system does exist for those massive errors and happens when a new chief executive arrives. In the following 100 ( some cases 30) days anything up to 90 % of the existing systems are altered and changed. Sometimes , by some amazing fluke , a time honoured and tested ordinary old idea is reinstated. Many times it’s too late to bring back the good and a an all new shiny future is promised.

    The sad bit , as the customer, our once superb whatever becomes more expensive , less accessible and always more costly.

    The good news is the executive team following best practice will ensure they continue to be in the top quartile for pay.

  2. Paul
    Great blog post and so true. The sign of a successful company is one that can kill these zombie projects. Unsuccessful companies will keep feeding the zombie project with more money in the hope that one day it will be finished and they start to see a payback. The reason is the mind set that they have already spent money on it and if it fails it will be a waste of money. What they fail to see is they will end up wasting even more money by not killing off the zombie project. If you see a zombie project in a company then you need a mind set change and go and kill it once and for all.

    1. Thanks Barry – you’re closer to this than me – but imagine there must be cases when a zombie project can be rescued through effective project management? I guess in most cases though it’s too far gone so kill it, learn from it, start again.

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