“You will never find them,” said a senior leader in a multibillion-dollar IT company.
The “them” the leader was referring to were zombie projects: the nefarious enemies of well-intentioned innovation efforts around the globe. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact on the company’s strategy or revenue prospects.
We had suggested that at least one reason why the company was struggling to successfully commercialize innovative ideas was that zombies were draining its resources and clogging its pipeline. The leader was skeptical.
He thought we wouldn’t find any given the company’s highly rigorous planning process. Every year scores of people spent months reviewing recent performance and sanity-checking future projections. Every project went under the proverbial microscope. So how could a zombie project possibly exist?
A zombie project spawns in predictable ways. The project certainly makes sense when first sanctioned by leadership. Its financial projections, while always uncertain, look reasonable. Market assumptions seem plausible. The development timeline looks achievable.
But somewhere along the line, something happens. The technology doesn’t quite work as planned. A competitor does something unanticipated. A key partner decides not to participate. Customers react in an unexpected way.
Project team members know that what’s happened isn’t good, but it’s hard for them to acknowledge when a project has come off the rails. Psychologists have pointed out how we suffer from confirmation bias, paying more attention to the things we expect and ignoring the things we don’t. And even when we’re aware of setbacks, we’re prone to using the affect heuristic — when we believe in something, we play up good news and ignore bad news.
At some point the data do become overwhelming, and if you gave team members truth serum, they’d admit that the project will never contribute meaningfully to the company’s financial and strategic goals.
Scott D. Anthony is the managing partner of Innosight. David Duncan is a Senior Partner at Innosight. Pontus M.A. Siren is a principal in Innosight’s Singapore office.