Zombie Projects: How They Are Created And What Can Be Learnt

If it feels like something is dragging the business down, a zombie project may be the case


Anyone who’s ever been involved with an innovation program will likely relate to those occasions when a project sits at the development stage for so long that it seems to be neither alive or dead. These projects are called zombies. They clog up processes and more projects are held up as a result. In the past, the idea sounded promising, but over time, they have just sucked up time and money without creating anything of value. In zombie apocalypse films, Earth’s destruction begins in a subtle way, starting with a cough and ending with the walking dead overrunning everything. Zombie projects can have a similar impact on companies.

Strategies for each project are usually carefully thought through, with defined timings and development stages in order to reach an end goal. However, these stages can be undermined by unforeseen circumstances and the project can quickly become a quagmire. A business partner may drop out, competitors could launch an identical product, or customers may not react well to the project. It could easily become a zombie if these issues are not seen as fatal and the company continues to dedicate time and money to them regardless.

Anything that doesn't work should be detected and removed swiftly. The timings are critical when it comes to innovation because the product has to be exclusive, high quality, and able to disrupt markets. If the launch dates are continuously extended, the window of opportunity becomes smaller.

To avoid offense or upset when closing a project, a criteria list that projects must fulfill should be set in advance. It's important to analyze whether there is a real need for the product or service in the market and there should be a research done on competing projects and whether these are a threat. Finally, there must be a clear understanding of the financial capabilities as the idea may sound great, but there is little sense in stretching the budget for something that doesn't have a guaranteed successful future.

The criteria list needs to be closely monitored. If a project is left with little supervision, the problem may only be detected after it’s happened. When it comes to delivering new products and services, innovation teams face many challenges, key amongst them being a lack of leadership support or little strategic knowledge of external market conditions. When this isn’t addressed is when zombie projects are liable to be created.

However, zombie projects are not the end of the world and they are relatively common. Zombie projects don't indicate incompetence, but they do require attention and resources. Learning from mistakes is important and it can be hard to accept that an idea has failed. However, analyzing what went wrong and planning future projects with these failures in mind creates more robust ideas in the future. 

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