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Zombie ideas and Vampire ideas

Creativity and Innovation

Some ideas just don’t want to die!

When I was quite early on in my consulting career, I was tasked with evaluating all of the current projects which a client had.

What I found were several projects which were still receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds of budget each year, but which appear to have started years ago, had made no progress since, and nobody was responsible for delivering them.

This is an example of a zombie project.

Zombie projects are projects that just refuse to die.

Perhaps in the past, when they first started there was a good reason for them. But they never made enough progress to finish. In the interim time, often people are not sure what to do with them, or even who is responsible for making a decision. So the project stays open, appearing in the portfolio of projects and having resources assigned to it, but no clear time pressure or milestones to meet.

Zombie ideas are similar, and especially common in innovation teams. Sometimes, an idea will come out of an ideation session or be suggested by a team member, and put in the list of ideas.

It may even start life as an innovation project or pilot.

But over time, there is a lack of progress. The team cannot validate whether the idea is progressing or not, what needs to change or who is responsible for making a decision to change. So instead, the idea just keeps going. One of the major reasons why companies don’t want to stop (kill) under-performing projects is the sunk cost fallacy, where they feel that if they were to stop it now, all of the previous investment that went into it would have been for nothing. So instead, it makes more emotional sense to pump even more money into.

If you are in an innovation team, you may even know of some ideas / features / projects that have been given several chances to show their value, but show no progress.

Sometimes, the teams which originally worked on the project have lost passion for it and have begun work on something else, without having the conviction to admit that the project should die.

Often, the people working on the idea (if anyone is actually working on it) will provide status updates such as:

  • We are just working on the design
  • We are planning the next series of tests
  • Waiting for more feedback
  • Getting more data
  • Considering a pivot…

As part of any healthy innovation pipeline and portfolio, each project should be given clarity on what constitutes progress, and what needs to be validated to show that a project is progressing.

Because a healthy pipeline should be ruthless about killing projects that are not performing.

And those projects which refuse to be killed, and just keep going, might turn into zombie projects.

Or even worse, vampire projects.

Vampires are not only undead, they feed on the living by draining them dry.

Therefore, vampire projects are projects that by all accounts should have died a long time ago, but keep using up resources, people, time and budget that is therefore not available for other projects.

In order to clean up your innovation portfolio, it will often be necessary to disappoint some team members or leaders by stopping these projects. They might take it personally, as if you are killing their darlings.

If you encounter this, you can show them how by removing wasted resources from these underperforming projects, they can instead accelerate the delivery of other projects that will add even more value to them.

It might be painful, but you cannot half-kill a vampire.

You need to kill it completely, with a stake through its heart.

Or at least, its budget.

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