Project Portfolio Management

How to Find and Kill Zombie Projects

Project zombies: they hide amidst a company’s project repertoire, slowly dragging the company down. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Scott Anthony, David Duncan, and Pontus M.A. Siren document a classic case of zombie denial. A senior executive set forth his best people to scour the performance reviews, looking for the slightest hint of a project gone wrong. The results were alarming.

Uncovering Undead Projects

But when Anthony and his team looked at three dozen project efforts for the same IT company, they found a 20% zombie rate – almost one quarter of all the company’s projects were zombies!

When we evaluated three dozen efforts for this IT company using realistic projections of possible revenues, we found 20% of them were zombies that didn’t warrant continued investment. Shutting those projects down without penalty would free up enough funding to support two years of more strategic innovation activities.

How Zombies Thrive

How is this possible given the high degree of scrutiny by the company’s staff? There are several reasons, all of which involve subterfuge fueled by poor incentives. The first act of deception occurs when a project leader suspects that something has gone horribly wrong. Perhaps it’s faulty technology or an unpredictable competitor. Whatever the reason, they decide to subvert the budgetary process to live another day. They keep the project alive, fearing repercussions.

Another way zombies survive is through what psychologists call confirmation bias. By paying attention only to results that confirm a preferred belief, project members inadvertently allow the zombified project to survive.

A Solution: Zombie Amnesty

The solution to “outing” project zombies may come as a surprise. Anthony and other researchers have recently introduced the idea of “zombie amnesty,” an approach to killing zombies by luring them out of hiding. During zombie amnesty, team members are allowed to put their projects up for consideration without fear of negative repercussions. Once the project is killed, the people are saved by being reassigned to more profitable projects.

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