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Are “Zombie” Projects Haunting Your NPD Portfolio?

You know these projects, every company has them. The product idea that keeps showing up on your NPD portfolio, despite having been “killed” off previously. For some reason, the NPD team can’t get it out of its system, no matter how often it’s been put to rest. It was a marginal idea to begin with, but it keeps coming back to life.

These are what I call a “Zombie” project. The project that never seems to die, and sucks life out of more deserving opportunities. They keep showing up in ideation sessions  and sometimes slip through the cracks and get resources – often times unofficially funded because nobody tracks them.

Zombie projects tend to be pet projects driven by someone in the organization. Perhaps a senior person who has an idea that she can’t let go of. Or perhaps an engineer who has fallen in love with a technology and is determined to turn into a new product. Or worse, there simply isn’t anything better in the pipeline to work on!

In my experience, many of these zombie projects are concepts that don’t fit perfectly with the current product portfolio strategy. Because they “kind of fit,” management isn’t united in making a definitive decision to kill the program. So the program teeters on and off the active portfolio list. Never getting the proper funding and worse, competes for resources over more deserving projects.

When implemented correctly, the portfolio management system will divest itself of projects that have been identified as marginal and/or too far outside the strategic direction of the firm. Sometimes these projects are put on hold and are reviewed at the next product portfolio review cycle to assess the merit of the concept. If resources are available and no new concepts have emerged that are better than the current ones on hold, management can choose to promote projects on hold back on the active list.

The worse thing management can do is to vacillate between go and no-go decision making. This is the breeding ground of zombies and a lot of confusion. It’s a judgment decision as to how many projects you want to keep on-hold, but don’t let your list of on-hold projects grow out of control. Kill some of those puppies, as Dr. Cooper has famously said, before they become zombies and resource sucking vampires.

A second source of zombie projects are smaller peripheral project, like accessories and other add-ons, and fall below the radar. These small projects do impact development queues causing delays in the overall product development launch schedules. (See my article on “What’s In Your Development Queue?”)

The other major source of zombie projects are found in the front end of innovation, before a project is selected (either by fiat or through a project portfolio selection system).  These are the same old ideas, over and over again. They never quite cut mustard, but nevertheless, keep coming up in front of the review board for selection. Maybe a tweak here or there, but basically the same tried and true solution that no longer inspires the market.

Again, potentially harmless in the grand scheme of things if the portfolio selection system is working properly and rejects the ideas from moving further in the pipeline. However, these zombie concepts do take time to process. Time that could be used in coming up with real innovations.

And worse, zombie concepts might mean your innovation team is stuck on the same old ideas. Solutions they understand and feel comfortable with. The innovation team isn’t thinking differently. It understands how to make hammers, and thus every problem to them looks like a nail. But the market doesn’t use nails anymore. So new and bold ideas are dismissed too early because the focus is on “what we do best” (i.e. make hammers) versus “what problems are out there, that if solved would provide a new value stream for us?”

If the same basic product concepts keep coming up in front of the portfolio review board, this is a very good sign that your front end innovation system is broken. It’s time to think differently and focus on discovering market problems worth solving versus doing the same old projects over and over again, and expecting fresh new sales. It doesn’t work that way.

Kill your zombie projects early and often before they lead your product development pipeline to hell! Zombies are persistent buggers, shoot the buggers between the eye and move on to living projects.


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