Zombie products eat brains.
If you’ve ever seen one shuffle along for quarters on end, missed milestone after missed milestone, you know what I’m talking about: they literally consume the brainpower of people who could otherwise be focused on products and features that actually drive results.
This is a very real, very big problem — particularly when it comes to product development. SelectaVision, which ended up costing its maker RCA upwards of $580 million (in 1984 dollars) and yielded virtually no revenue, is arguably one of the more well known examples of a massive zombie.
Across industries, zombies of all sizes eat up vast amounts of R&D dollars and product development effort. According to McKinsey, “all but the most vigilant product developers could terminate one-quarter to one-third of their projects, liberating resources for redeployment.”
Killing zombies isn’t easy, especially at large companies with many stakeholders, but it can be a beautiful thing. Here’s a brief overview of things to consider when hunting zombies.
Know how to identify one
Zombie products are easiest to spot at smaller organizations, where there are fewer initiatives and greater visibility into each team’s progress. At larger companies, zombies can hide among countless other budget and R&D items, or behind a particularly strong-willed executive champion. Look for these telltale signs:
Low roadmap confidence
If teams express a lack of confidence in a product’s roadmap, you may have a zombie on your hands. Ask people to rank their level of confidence in the roadmap, from 1 to 10, and report on the results.
3 or more consecutive quarters of missed projections
There are reasonable explanations for not hitting targets — unforeseen technical requirements, inadequate marketing, executive-sponsored scope creep — and in some cases, development efforts aren’t expected to pay off for a long time. But three or more quarters of subpar performance should put any project on a zombie watch list.
Increasingly vocal detractors
Even at large companies, zombies will over time accrue detractors — people who have witnessed underperformance and begin to vocalize their opinions. The challenge: find a way to solicit and objectively assess detractor opinions in a productive manner — and without sparking a witch hunt that threatens viable projects and taxes morale.
Quantify the tradeoffs
Once you’ve identified a zombie, it’s not enough to quantify the toll it has imposed on the organization. You’ve got to paint an alternate vision for how those resources could be more effectively be deployed.
At Wizeline, we do this by keeping a backlog of features and projects that are ranked by total number of customer requests, potential revenue, level of investment and other strategic considerations. At a glance, it’s relatively easy to get a decent idea of what other product development efforts could be sponsored, and what the relative returns might be.
Scott Anthony of Innosight, a consulting firm, recommends instituting zombie amnesty — “a period during which people can come clean, put their projects up for consideration, and suffer no repercussions if a project is terminated.”
The goal: identify and cut costly projects to free up resources that can be refocused on more-promising endeavors. In one case, Anthony and his team identified 20% of an IT client’s projects could be killed and refocused on more-important investments.
Define success criteria for failure
Once you kill a project or product effort, Anthony suggests communicating the decision broadly within the company, and to provide closure.
Taking it one step further, make sure people don’t interpret the discontinuation of a project as punishment for failure. Quite the opposite: it’s important to encourage experimentation and failure — both of which are key ingredients to a successful product development process. It sounds counterintuitive, but at Wizeline we call this defining “the success criteria for failure.”