Zombie Projects: Incubation or Termination?

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Everyone working with innovation in large organization knows of projects that continue to drag along even though it seems very unlikely that they will be worth the investment made in terms of money and other resources.

Some of these projects might already have been terminated by managers or executives because they do not match the strategy, do not hold enough potential – or more likely – do not have the right timing.

They are “zombie projects”.

They are often kept alive because of a combination of bad management processes, lack of clarification and by “skunk work” employees, who still think they are valid projects and thus are willing to waste valuable resources on projects that are rarely brought back into the innovation project pool.

There are two sides to this dilemma.

One is that projects without value should be completely shut down. There should be consequences if some employees do not accept this. Another is that some of these projects actually deserve a second look.

In an earlier blog post, 7 Challenges for Corporate Innovation Units, I argued that the window of opportunity gets smaller and smaller and the time given to become successful decreases. In short, cash cows are a dying race. Corporate innovation units need to hit smaller windows more often in order to create strong return on investments.

I think more and more projects will be dismissed because of the timing issue. This is often a waste of good ideas and I think companies need to build systems in which they can put good projects on hold and bring them back when timing is right.

You can sum this up in the below considerations:

Have an innovation strategy: The power of a strategy is that it gives you good arguments for saying NO. If a project does not fit the innovation strategy, it becomes less of a discussion whether a project is being killed – or kept alive – because of personal preferences.

Constant iteration: You need to constantly iterate on your strategy just as you need to hold frequent reviews on your projects. The pace of change is just too fast for you to miss out on this. Here it is also important to have a short, mid and long-term focus.

Idea baskets: There is so much talk about idea funnels, but what about idea baskets. A while ago, John Johnson told me about a PepsiCo initiative in which he tried to find ways to keep some ideas at sleep while they waited for better timing. Here you get into a delicate balance on what to work on actively, what to keep on stand-by, what to put to sleep and what to terminate, but the investment in such a process might be worth it in the long run.

It would be great to get your insights on what else to consider when you are dealing with unfit or zombie projects. As a starter, I can share this perspective from Michael Fruhling. He wrote this in previous comment on my blog:

” I like the term “zombie projects” because it describes them so well! In my experience, I have found that projects exist in part as a way to maintain relevance, and visibility and to command airtime for scarce management bandwidth and corporate resources. After all, everyone wants to be working on something that management cares about, right? And similarly, management is reticent about killing projects because they don’t wish to send negative messages to staff. So, quite often, projects are perpetuated despite their being largely irrelevant.

One refreshing break from practice was implemented at Bath and Body Works some years ago, when CEO Neil Fiske and his management team agreed that only 8 new projects would receive prioritization and resources. The projects would be decided by their strategic relevance and projected contribution to sales revenue. The departments competed for the 8 slots in a venture capital pitch type fashion (I’m oversimplifying, but you understand my point). After the decision was reached, if a project wasn’t among the 8…it was not to be worked with nor was it to receive any resources. Painful for some, but good for many. Obviously, those whose projects didn’t make the cut felt vulnerable, but that type of discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I can see merit in this approach. I don’t know whether this discipline is maintained to this day, but it seems right to me. Too many projects aren’t killed outright that honestly need a bullet in the head. Others would benefit fom incubation, but sometimes one must make tough decisions about managing scarce resources.”

What do you think?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stefan Lindegaard
Stefan is an author, speaker, facilitator and consultant focusing on open innovation, social media tools and intrapreneurship.

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