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Monday, July 22, 2013

Protect your project from Zombie Outbreaks

[Also available as a podcast]


\ˈzäm-bē\ noun
1. Formal.
   a. the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.
   b. the supernatural force itself 

2. Informal.
   a. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton.
   b. a person who is or appears lifeless, apathetic, or completely unresponsive to their surroundings. 
   c. an eccentric or peculiar person, markedly strange in appearance or behavior (sometimes confused with Teenagers). 

3. Project Zombie.
   a. a member of the project team whose behavior or responses towards the project are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton.
   b. a member of the project team who appears directionless or wandering but is attracted by noise and activity.

Zombies Today

Zombies are currently very popular in the media; in the past 18 months alone there have been 32 zombie films created (many of them B films, but a notable number featured in the mainstream theater circuit, and over 160 have been released since the start of 2009). I will admit, I have only seen a half dozen or so in the last few years but my favorites have to be Zombieland (2009) and Sean of the Dead (2004). Soulless re-animated bodies wanting to eat your brains? Sure. Running for your lives to reach a goal or sanctuary, keeping just ahead of the armies of the undead? You bet. However, both films introduce a quirky sense of humour that keeps them from being strictly hide-under-the-covers horror movies. 

Yearning for some piece of normality while you reload your shotgun? That overturned delivery truck just might contain a box of Twinkies.

What about Warm Bodies (2013), you ask? Well, certainly it was an enjoyable film and it had decent humour, but as most of the 'zombies' recovered simply from looking at a pretty girl, you have to wonder if they were true zombies, or if they were just temporarily heartbeat-challenged. On the other hand, the explanation they offered for eating brains was unique and somewhat enlightening. OK, so maybe we will add it to the list.

However, the cinematic undead aside, we have a much more serious problem in real life. Many of our projects suffer zombie outbreaks. They may not actually be undead or want to eat your brains, but they are zombies nonetheless. And even worse, they may be your fault.

Project Zombies

Let's be fair, not all projects have zombies. I would argue that some of the most successful projects have managed to run from Project Initiation through to Closeout with nary a zombie in sight. On the other end of the scale, some projects are constantly plagued by zombies, and just like the movies, these zombies tend to multiply at a frightening pace.

What does it mean to be a Project Zombie? Well, there are some common attributes shared by all zombies, undead or otherwise.
  • Lack of Motivation: Aimless, listless, wandering or generally apathetic behaviour
  • Easily Distracted: Attracted to noise or activity, angered by the 'living'
  • Spread the Dis-ease: Affliction spreads through close or regular contact
  • Hunger for 'Brains': Seeking something they are lacking
However, one key difference between a regular everyday Zombie and your Project Zombies is how they are created.

Creating a Zombie

In the movies, some unlucky person is usually 'patient zero', afflicted by some mutant virus, or perhaps bitten by an animal with some hitherto-unknown variant of rabies. Once bitten, the afflicted turns into a zombie (right away in some films, or as soon as they die a horrible death in others), and spread the affliction by biting as many people as they can, while snacking their way around the populace and munching on a brain or two.

On your project, if there are Zombies, there will always be a 'patient zero'. If you are really, really unlucky, this is you - the Project Manager. No biting is involved, but the contagion spreads just the same, from one disaffected person to the next. 

Recognizing a Project Zombie

In order to protect yourself (and your project) from the Project Zombies, you need to be able to identify them. As your zombies will likely have a healthy skin tone and otherwise look 'normal', it may be hard to spot them, but there are some behavioural cues that are a dead (or maybe undead) giveaway.

Lack of Motivation

Zombies of all types tend to appear aimless, listless, or have generally apathetic behaviour to what is going on around them (i.e. the project). They may also be found wandering around the office with an appearance of busy-ness, but they are far from productive and engaged in your project. Some of the more clever ones may carry a notepad and a writing device, or perhaps an electronic tablet as part of their disguise. 

If you look closer, though, they are often busy with anything but your project - they lack motivation to get things done. When you do drag them along to meetings, they tend not to participate or contribute much to the meetings. If you do get anything out of them, it may be a moan, groan or other gutteral complaint. They would really rather be somewhere else - anywhere else, really - just not with you, or working on your project.

They have become disengaged, disaffected and are possibly infected with the 'SEP' virus (Somebody Else's Problem).

Easily Distracted

When things are going well on your project, it is common to see your team members engaged in animated discussions on relevant topics, and then see them fully absorbed in solving some project problem at their desks - or, simply put, getting the job done. They may even seem to be enjoying it. Although they will likely be quite social with the other project team members, this will not tend to keep them from the business of your project - they feel good about a job well done.

On the other hand, Project Zombies are easily distracted from whatever they are doing at the moment (be it reviewing a document, producing some deliverable or chewing on a co-workers arm...Hey, stop that!). They are not very interested in what they are doing most of the time, and are easily distracted by the next activity or novelty that comes along. Any type of interesting noise or conversation will draw them in, and they may become frustrated when the makers-of-noise ('the living') return to a working state. Those people are not yet afflicted, which annoys and angers the Zombie. Something must be done, so the Zombie makes plans to isolate the others, one by one, and turn them into Project Zombies so they can join the horde.

Spreading Dis-ease

Just as with normal zombies, the affliction spreads through close contact. The undead may need to bite you to spread the dis-ease, but for the living Project Zombies, all it takes is a whisper in the ear and the damage is done. Rumor, innuendo, false information and negative opinions fill any gaps in project communications, and this can spread rapidly throughout the team. 

Your zombies spread a mental virus, based on misinformation, negative opinions and dissatisfaction, which leads to erosion of trust; it also results in reduced motivation for the newly afflicted.

And thus the cycle begins anew.

Hunger for 'Brains'

Not all is lost, however - one of the more positive behaviours of a Zombie is their strong hunger for Brains. Well, maybe it is not so positive for the donor, but if you look at it from the zombie's point of view, with a bit of a metaphorical optimistic twist, all they are really looking for is some direction.

Yes - those listless, aimless, easily distracted, dis-ease spreading, wandering zombies are seeking leadership. The problem in the movies is that most of the zombies never find the right leader, so they keep on snacking away, looking for the perfect brain.

The good news for us, of course (other than that your Project Zombies are not likely to actually eat your brain), is that you have the perfect opportunity to fix all this.

Not by just being the Project Manager - but by being their Leader.

Say what? Who would want to lead a horde of Project Zombies and be responsible for project failure?

That is not what actually happens - or at least, it doesn't have to be.

Curing Project Zombies

Yes, Zombies can be cured. Well, in most movies this involves separation of the head from the body, but Warm Bodies gives us some hope that it does not always have to be this way.

And certainly on your projects, if you ever hope to pull your team back together and complete your project successfully, you have to be optimistic that you can cure the zombies. Otherwise, you might as well give up, grab someone's arm or leg, and join the horde.

There are four things you can do to cure your Project Zombies - and they tie into the four main behaviours that your Zombies may exhibit.
  • Lack of Motivation: This can be cured by giving your team members a sense of purpose. Explain the project objectives clearly, communicate what impact your project will have on the business, and the importance of project success. Even more importantly, show your team how their contributions will make a difference - and that they are valued as people. Very few people come to work every day to try and do a bad job; if you give them something to be positive and excited about, you may just be surprised at how quickly your Zombies can regain more human behaviours. Keep a close eye out for any relapses though - you may need to encourage and reinforce the message on a regular basis.
  • Easily Distracted: Quite often, if you solve the Motivation problem this will be solved on its own. However, habits are slow to form, so you may need to keep an eye on team dynamics, allow some social time because it is important for team building and morale, but kindly but firmly remind them to get back to work if you need to. Giving them something challenging (but achievable) and meaningful to do will also help reduce distractions affecting your team.
  • Spread the Dis-ease: The primary vector of the dis-ease is communication, so you fight fire with fire (or words for words). Make sure to communicate regularly and clearly with your team. Don't allow long periods to happen between communication; keep your comms regular and be consistent. If you don't have anything new to add this week, it is better to report "nothing new" rather than to say nothing at all. Rumours love dark, silent places - so shed some light on what is going on, and keep your project team well-informed.
  • Hunger for 'Brains': Lack of direction is the primary problem here - we all look for leadership. Solve this problem for your team by being a good, strong leader; if you can, be a great leader. An important thing to remember is that your team has different needs throughout the project - so be the Leader they need you to be for this stage of the project. Your team can 'smell' if you are not being the leader they need you to be - if you let them down, they will likely move on, seeking a more suitable brain - leaving yours alone as 'not interesting' enough.

    Give them something to really chew on, a satisfying leadership experience - so they don't look for other brains.


Zombies can be found in most projects. They may be the people on your team, or simply mistaken ideas or attitudes around project controls (Read The Zombies of Project Management1 by Youssef Mourra). Fortunately, with open communication, clear setting of expectations and solid leadership, we can dispel the zombies, cure those afflicted, and prevent further outbreaks in our projects. Use those Project Manager brains of yours - lest they be 'eaten' out of desperation.

Good luck with your projects, hold onto your head, and take appropriate actions to prevent or recover from zombie outbreaks on your projects.

...and if you fail in that, look long and hard while trying to survive the Zombie Apocalypse, and you just might find the last Twinkie on earth.

Gary Nelson, PMP

1. Mourra, Y. (2012, September). The Zombies of project management. Paper presented at the PMI New Zealand Chapter 18th Annual Conference: Faces and Facets of Project Management, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. Nice article, addressing a real problem in project management, particularly in large enterprise environments. Zombie people, zombie processes, zombie outcomes.

    I wrote about this last year, and would be interested in your thoughts.