If you’re running an active innovation program, chances are high that you have some zombie projects haunting you. These projects rarely contribute any positive outcomes and have long seemed lifeless, yet they remain “undead.”
I’ve seen quite a few zombie projects while advising innovation efforts at both large corporations and smaller startups. Telltale signs include project leads who have lost interest and are now distracted by newer, shinier initiatives. Often, funding was neither increased nor cut, which keeps the project limping along. If an initiative was the brainchild of a powerful figure or had important stakeholders involved, it might linger for months or years.
Zombies Are Threats
While zombies may provide a delicious surge of adrenaline while watching a late-night movie, in a business setting these projects can be darkly threatening, particularly in three areas.
- They create doubt and distraction. Zombie projects are always in the wings, detracting from the focused efforts needed for new projects. They cast doubt on fresh initiatives, as participants wonder if this project also will end up as a zombie. If it’s an external activity, the project’s lifelessness and abandonment can also damage your brand.
- They claim time and mental energy. While zombie projects may not be fully active, they aren’t completely dead. They require at least a minimum amount of tending — attention that could be better deployed elsewhere.
- They tie up resources. Zombie projects likely receive some sort of staffing and financial support, even if modest. Freeing up these resources can fuel other, more valuable efforts.
Ending Zombies in a Positive Light
What’s the best way to deal with zombie projects? First, acknowledge them. Pull them out of the shadows and determine what elements, if any, are worth continuing. If there are none — as is often the case — be prepared to eliminate them permanently.
Then, take this important step to end your zombie projects with grace, so they don’t linger or return: Make a full review of what the project has contributed, and document this value. While not a roaring success, a zombie project may have taught you important lessons about focus, planning, or market needs. It could have connected you to new partners or resources. You may have increased capabilities or gained new perspectives. And at least you now know what doesn’t work, which is important and valuable information on its own.
The documentation of value also provides the basis for a positive response to future questions. When someone inevitably asks about the project, you can reply: “That project is closed. We gained a lot of information about __________ and are putting it to use.”
My challenge to you is to review the zombie projects you have hanging around the shadows of your company. Drag them into the light, assess their value, and be grateful for what they have contributed. Then end them, fully and permanently, knowing they’ve served their purpose.