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Do You Have Zombie Projects?

Guest Author Blog by Ron Ashkenas author of, Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done

Have you ever noticed that it’s often more difficult to kill a business project than to start a new one?

Simply Effective
Simply Effective

After weeks of analysis and debate, the CFO of a major financial services company told me that the senior management team had decided to stop a product-development effort that was taking too long and didn’t appear to be making progress.

After the team members were informed, he received an email from the team leader asking which of the following three options should be taken: (1) Keep the project going anyway; (2) Put the project on hold for two months and then come back to it; or (3) Move the project under another one and call it something else.

There are many reasons why complexity flourishes in an organization – but one of the most common is “initiative overload.” Just like an individual can only handle so many things at once, the same is true of organizations.

In addition to getting the day-to-day work accomplished, there is only so much bandwidth to tackle additional projects. However, despite the limited capacity, organizations constantly generate new projects in response to competitive and environmental changes. Sometimes these are major strategic investments that are conceived and approved at the highest levels, such as market studies, competitive analysis, new product development efforts, or IT programs. But in addition, there usually are dozens of other projects that managers assign to improve processes, answer questions, or just get things done more effectively.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

Unless an organization hires consultants or staff, the constant addition of new projects needs to be coupled with the completion or reduction of old ones. It’s a simple law of physics. However, managers and staff often are reluctant to let their projects go. Not only do they become emotionally attached to projects and want to see them through to completion, they also worry that being taken off a project will make them vulnerable to cutbacks or downsizing. After all, the best way to stay employed is to be extremely busy and appear to be indispensable; hence the email to that CFO, and the appearance of “zombie projects” – initiatives that were supposedly killed but keep breathing anyway.

Given this dynamic, projects (alive or half-dead) tend to proliferate in organizations like weeds in the garden. And when enough accumulate, they can choke the organization and make it difficult to focus on truly critical and important initiatives.

To avoid “initiative overload” – either at the corporate level or within your own domain – it is important to periodically step back and take inventory of the current project portfolio. And not just the big ones.

For example, several years ago when James Wolfensohn was president of the World Bank, his Managing Directors were concerned that many internal reform projects weren’t getting done on time. To get things moving faster they brought together key managers from different regions and functions and filled a large wall with individual post-its, each one representing a different project or special initiative.

They then mapped the projects against the Bank’s reform strategy and, much to their amazement, identified dozens of initiatives that didn’t fit. The team then went through this list one-by-one to either kill the project and reallocate the resources; or put a 30-day time limit on completing it. By following this discipline, and repeating it periodically, the Bank accelerated its reform agenda tremendously.

Whether we admit it or not, every organization is prone to “initiative overload,” which raises the question: What are you doing to make sure that non-essential efforts and “zombie projects” don’t divert resources and attention from your firm’s most critical work?

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Ron Ashkenas
Ron Ashkenas
Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associatesa Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm.

He is also the author of Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done

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