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Zombie Projects and How to Kill Them

Managing projects that don't end

One of the first things that project managers learn on training courses is that a project has a start, a middle and an end. Unfortunately, outside the classroom you’ll come across projects that don’t work like that.

What is a zombie project?

A zombie project is one that never ends. It simply consumes resources and carries on because no one has the foresight (or courage) to kill it off.

A zombie project is one that never ends. It simply consumes resources and carries on because no one has the foresight (or courage) to kill it off.

Don’t be the project manager that lets a project go on and on by accepting every scope change and picking up all the operational work as well as the requests for new functionality, additions or improvements.

That doesn’t make you a project manager, it makes you an operational team leader – although you could find that there is a useful long-term product management role for you if you prefer this way of working.

Zombie PM is a term I came up with in 2010 when I put together a project management alphabet.

How to spot a zombie project

Projects and operational work coexist on large programmes so it is quite likely that at some point in your project management career you will be asked to get involved with operational work. And it may feel like your project is never-ending. However, zombie projects are not operational, day-to-day work. They are projects that:

  • lack structure
  • have poor management
  • have poor oversight; and
  • lack of governance.

Like the zombies in films, they are mindless. The project managers and the teams leading them don’t ask the basic question – why? Why should we do it like this? Why are we doing this project at all?

If these projects can’t be rescued and turned into something useful, they should be closed down. After all, they are sucking up valuable resources that could be put to better use working on something else.

Read next: How to Save a Failing Project (ebook)

zombie project description

Killing those zombie projects — a case study

So you’ve found yourself on a zombie project? Take heart, you aren’t the only one.

“I used to have a position as an advisor to a U.S. Government PMO,” says Derek Huether, an enterprise Agile coach and trainer. “It was a traditional PMO, filled with certified professionals doing very good work in very specific areas of expertise. We had budget specialists, schedule specialists, earned value specialists, and even contract specialists. The projects being managed were very traditional in nature, with the exception of one thing. They never ended!”

He might have been able to forgive the long timescales if this PMO was managing projects committed to the construction of battleships or the next generation of an interstate highway system.

“I realise these would take years to plan and implement,” he says. “But this PMO was managing software applications, both in development and in operation. So, why is it these projects never ended and never seemed to deliver anything of value? Why is it they just wouldn’t die? It is because, of course, these were zombie projects.”

Faced with a set of projects that were simply taking up space, Derek had to make a choice.

“I would like to say I killed off all of these zombie projects or at least put them all back on course to delivering value to the taxpayers,” he says. “Alas, if you are a connoisseur of zombie movies like I am, you know there is only one thing you can do. Divide and conquer.”

How to get that zombie project finished

Derek identified one small project that he knew a small team could bring back from the brink.

“We identified what deliverables were most important to the project sponsor,” he says. “Then we established a small cross-functional team, asking some members to work outside of their functional expertise, to allow the flow of work to be regulated.”

Derek took an Agile approach, scheduling a daily 15 minute standing meeting to communicate status and deal with issues and risks. “We asked the team to demonstrate to the project sponsor what they had got done in the previous week, to allow the sponsor to accept or reject what was done and provide feedback and insights into shifting priorities,” he says.

Derek and his team established regular weekly deliveries of product, to build onto previously delivered items, and they clearly identified a project end date.

“Whatever we had done by that date would be it, without new project sponsorship and the creation of a new project following the same parameters of our new non-zombie project,” he says. As a result, he brought this particular zombie project back under control and ensured it delivered something of value to the project sponsor.

You can do the same: don’t let your project turn into a zombie project taking up resources and energy that could be better used elsewhere.

You might not be able to stop that from happening, but at the very least recognise when it has happened and recommend that the project is closed down. Otherwise you’ll be mindlessly supporting a project that is going nowhere and has nothing to offer. Cut your losses and run!

Get a free project closure document to help make the case that your project should be stopped!

traits of zombie project managers

Don’t be a zombie project manager

We might all recognise the zombie project, but what about the people leading projects? Does this sound like someone you know?

  • They do exactly what they are told without challenging anything
  • They don’t come up with original ideas
  • They don’t suggest ways to improve the project management processes
  • They don’t follow up on actions – they simply assume they will get done
  • They update and issue the plan in a format that most of the team can’t read or understand
  • They work on projects that deliver no business value
  • They go through the motions of being a project manager but without any critical thinking applied

If this sounds like someone you have worked with – you know what a Zombie Project Manager is like.

One of my favourite sayings is ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’   Zombie Project Managers follow the plan, regardless of the changing environment.

Project management isn’t rocket science, and it shouldn’t be hard to get right. But you do need to apply an element of intelligence and critical thinking to what you do.

Projects need to be shepherded along, sponsors don’t always know best, and sometimes you have to suggest that your project is stopped. Zombie Project Managers can’t do this. They operate in a completely text book fashion, without applying any logic, context or thought to how to do things in the most effective way.

One of my favourite sayings that we overuse at my company is ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ Zombie Project Managers follow the plan, regardless of the changing environment around them.

Fortunately, most of the people I’ve worked with over the years have been switched on and very un-Zombie. I haven’t come across many Zombie Project Managers, but I know they are out there (cue spooky music).

I hope you don’t have any in your organisation, either!

A version of this post first appeared on the BCS website. Zombie images are from BenBlogged.com.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

Comments

  1. Dav says

    A great analogy- and after working for a large State Government Department for more than 22 years, this really hits home. I had thought our large scale software implementation projects were of the death match kind, but the zombie analogy is much, much closer. In our area, the reason that projects never end is often because they choose the wrong team members to start with. There are three types of project staff in my experience:
    a. The kind who want to leave their substantive role (as project roles are usually at the same or higher wage classification) in order to teach the manager of their substantive role a lesson, as they are auguring for a higher pay classification and/or just need a break from their day to day work. This makes up about 60% of project teams
    b. The kind who are being paid at a very high level compared to what they normally earn and somehow have taken the road of project vs operational roles. Again, makes up about 35% of project teams
    c. The kind who actually do this as either a form of self-development or really do want to make a difference- and only make about 5% of the project team. They often become frustrated as there is no difference being made and/or outcomes.

    Our projects are classed as a success even if the 2 yr implementation takes 10 years!

    I’m not sure how to address this. Certainly, hiring PMs need to ask why someone is interested in joining a project. I also think that there needs to be revision gates (against the project plan) that if the project fails or no longer makes business sense, then the project is killed. PRINCE2 is very good at asking that question, although we now have people suffer the delusion that unless you have lever-arch folders of documentation, you aren’t a real PM. It would be ideal to focus on outcomes only- rather than the process driven approach my organisation uses!

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Focusing on outcomes over a file of papers is a very sensible approach! It’s a pity that you’ve worked on teams that are so dysfunctional – 60% of people on a team who just want a break or to get back at their manager seems rather high to me, but I can see that in some companies that could be a realistic estimate.

      I agree that it’s hard to know how to deal with it – you’re going to need a strategy for every individual or situation I think. One blanked approach isn’t going to cut it every time.

  2. Petros Rigas says

    I’ve always been involved in such projects but never really though to them as being “zombies”. Thanks for this comparison. It kind of resonates with my perception of such projects. Such projects in my case are outside my control as a project manager. Surely I’d like to kill such projects but then if the customer insists on keeping them going and if your management is willing to go ahead with them, it’s basically impossible to let go. You can either quit or just accept reality and keep moving forward and adjusting to this “zombie” world.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Unfortunately we are at the whims of our masters… If the client wants to keep going and they won’t listen to reason then I think you will just have to adjust to the zombie world, as you say.

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