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 exhibit those characteristics.

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.

Spotting the zombie project

On large programmes, projects and operational work coexist, 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 without structure, with poor management, 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.

Killing those zombies

So you’ve found yourself on a zombie project? Take heart, you aren’t the only one. ‘A little over a year and a half ago, I left my 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.’

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 it, 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!