Project zombification, the business of the walking dead

office zombies that draw the energy and passion of your team

Here are a number of situations in which the essence of projects is killed. The result transforms projects into real office zombies that consume the energy and passion of, otherwise, talented and creative designers, developers, managers and entrepreneurs.

Zombification of a project occurs when a finite thing, that should have a start and an end, gets transformed into a long, operations-like, daily routine. It will spawn on its own from the proverbial “about one month”, to a year or more with zero results. As a slightly true rule,

when the deadline becomes foggy get ready to fight the zombie in the fog.

The reason for zombification is the infiltration of virus-like bad practices into the approach of the team. These bad practices mutate the, once fun and lively, project into a slow sloth, that nobody enjoys, and which acts like a mythical business sucubus.

Here are some bad practices for whom i required months of isolation therapy afterwards because of zombie interaction.

UX is tricked into UI

Probably the root of all evil. The good ol’ UX waits to be designed and nobody even notices it. Catchy visuals, smooth animations, hours of work poured into pixel perfect client side implementations, but no explanation exists for why does the app have a dashboard, what is the user’s ideal flow, what is the sales funnel, what is the main activity funnel — nothing.

Developers have no idea how to implement their OOP, because no UX means that out of some Photoshop comps they can hardly identify more than isolated database tables. Nobody took the time to make a user story, to define what is the main information the app handles, what is this information’s properties and why are each one of them significant: here come ORM code generators for making so called “models”.

So the user experience is watered down and instead an user interface is produced that servers basically as a glorified mockup of some nice ideas, emanated by whomever initiated the project. This bad practice is so extended that articles upon articles are revealed on a simple google search about how UI is not UX and how the very root of the problem might start with the universal hiring of: UX/UI designer.

For this particular bad practice let me draw a parallel with the advertising industry in which i have several years of direct experience. For the high risk, expensive and closely scrutinized activity of producing a TV, print or radio commercial, the art directors — which would be the equivalent of your UI designer — almost never produce the whole thing on their own. You’d get at least a duo of copywriting and art direction, if not even involve a bunch of other people from the brand manager to the client service executive. Because, you see, apart from the visuals and headlines and catchy USPs, the thing needs to have a story, a flow, a meaning that would highlight the benefit for the consumer. It must show clearly why the consumer should throw their money at you. That’s UX in advertising. You can’t do it with UI only, no matter what you sell.

Flat, 10% rounded corners, single page parallax html5 angular

This is known in the scientific community of web development theorists as the “buzzword syndrome”. Because of some mistaken stakeholders, the project must be built according to the summary of the latest “A list apart” feed combined with the TechCrunch trending subjects and some HN pizzaz.

It doesn’t matter if developers can’t figure out how to cache the assets — they are flat so we’re good. Never mind nobody ran a usability test or that the product manager forgets how to use the product on a daily basis — as long as all the corners are rounded (to match everyone’s Apple display bezels) we’re set free of any problems.

But, while coders and programmers suffer very often from this bad practice of infesting specification with buzzwords — for example “build it with angular and have a node backend for this stateless landing page” — the most hurt are visual designers. Trend conformance, as observed by others too, produces so many bland results and zero creativity that eventually they drop using Photoshop and revert to MS Paint instead to ease the cerebral burden.

Its really one of the most intriguing bad practices since there are countless examples of huge products built on proven grounds. However its easier to build a PR scheme if the app “RoRs”, isn’t it?

IA is fooled into MVC

Probably a mutation of the project zombification virus released into the wild by 37 Signals. Its adoption was so wide that it became practically immune to any forms of cure. You can throw all your UML plans at it, its not gonna have any effect.

This bad practice acts by replacing any kind of prior planning about how the application will be built, with the proven knowledge that it’ll use MVC. The most common implication is that all the tables are models and we’re done with IA. Who needs an information architect to create a coherent data model with proper inheritance, logic foreign keys and clear access to the future object’s hydration? Nobody, and even more, we’ll hire a database consultant only after we’ve built hundreds of tables with code generation tools provided by our generic and well intended framework. Poor database admins, they will be hunted down by the zombie project armored with a never ending stream of impossibly poor queries.

Also, another side effect of this bad practice is the worldwide spread ignorance of the very features platforms offer because, hey, if its MVC, who needs a database view, a stored procedure or a server side data collection daemon … seriously!

Warning! These are the zombie projects that upon a successful attack spawn ignorant professionals which carry on the contamination to other projects too.

Brick-a-brack projects

It’s also called the poor man’s MVP. It has to be done in a week. Nobody dares or cares to count rationally, or just add up, the estimate time that should be poured in. Then, surprisingly, because of good talent, in a week, the project becomes a fair idea to show to close friends, but instead its showcased to VCs as the next yacht producing IPO and from there on the promising little foundation gains monster additions.

People who had projects zombified by this bad practice are surely worn off already by random and semi-random admin panels and wizards, needed impossible screen scraping, countless strikingly similar features implemented as separate application modules, or, the worst, 180 degree turnarounds from last week’s idea by an improvement suggested in some video call, a small “improvement” that is requiring whole codebase refactoring.

These are the zombie projects that tend to have the most mana of them all. They appear to never have a solution, an end, a vague idea of when the absolution will descend upon the poor project team members, that are throwing their lives away fighting with it. Even if you somehow escape these zombie projects’ deadly stalk, they’ll come back later on to haunt you and wake you up at 2 AM with servers gone MIA and customers loosing their hard worked content, just because of some wrong flag being set in some table that nobody thought was still in use.

PM is bamboozled into daily stand-ups

This bad practice is a mutation of an otherwise friendly foe called “Agile management and its manifesto”. What was thought initially to be the cure for project zombification, later distilled into SCRUM practices for even more efficiency, a project vaccine really, was apparently defeated by superior zombie cure resistance.

The immediate effect is having no idea what phase the project is in, even after months of sprints. People get into automaton mode and relay their previous day’s wrote lines or icons produced then quietly wait for the others to do the ritual, all just to advance the day before lunch break.

The late observed effect is the crippling to death of the project’s critical path, its spine some say. Daily standup in (and weekly sprint out) there is an endless stream of stories which get backlogged because nobody took the time to think about their dependencies, their natural order or the implications and correlations with other stories. Epic stories are non existent: you have to estimate, no questions asked, and you shouldn’t care since you’ll re-estimate next week anyway.

In fact, this zombie project is the brainless type, with no actual project manager in charge.

Everything is fine until its not

Also called the enthusiasm backed bad practice. Happens a lot on fresh seeded ideas, angel backed revolutionary products or even lower profile marketing websites or intranet applications. The general symptom is that there are no problems whatsoever as so many weeks go by. Then, suddenly, people are fired, management changed, direction switched, code trashed, zombie project apocalypse starts.

Most hurt by this are, as always, the employees — the lower on the chain or outer on the circle, the worse they get hit. Plenty of folks are churning away happily at their three hour a day tasks that they’re assigned, until the project has a relapse into zombie mode and they are slapped with a slew of bad evaluations and logic defeating managerial reviews. Sprint after sprint is being completed, and with the required party thrown too, just to suddenly be attacked by the project that got switched into a fixed-deadline-waterfall soaking the team. Nobody seems to count the increased velocity, the outstanding quality code produced, the superb UX resulted in applying clear fear free principles in managing a cross functional team, just because suddenly, out of the blue, Steve Jobs appears in ghost form in the meeting room screaming “Rrreaaal aaartiiistsss shiiiipp!!!”. Be advised, these words are a magic spell to turn a well intended agile project into a powerful level ten zombie, that takes a dozen morales a day into oblivion with each strike.

This last one is such a wide spread bad practice that you cannot even hope to escape. It manifests in various unexpected forms: “it doesn’t matter that its great, if it won’t make any money”, “how do our core 10 users, which we know by name, benefit this”, “we must perfectly match our estimated sales plan” — all having one simple description: large truisms that fail to be useful in the context in which they get used.

The projects affected by this mutation converts to a guilt generating, and stress feeding, personal life deprivation for all involved. These are the zombie projects that leak outside the office into the home and drive significant others mad or distant (indeed! a weird and scientifically unexplained result).

Truly, I am sure you’ve seen plenty more other mutations of the project zombification virus in the wild. I hope, and dare to dream, to the day when the advanced minds of think tanks and labs found in the academic world will take this huge waste of human potential seriously — and, maybe, with a bit of investment and trial and error, a true cure for the virus will show up in the form of some kind of mutual agreement upon best practices, task durations, the universal biases people have and the acceptance of these biases and so on; i hope to get to see this wild mix of ingredients making a business vaccine — and then getting amused by the crowd of truthers that will refuse it because it gives way too fast stock options monetization to the initial hires.

Thank you for getting informed and take good measures to stay business healthy. If you care for others (shameless guilt exploitation) click the recommend button below (there was the call to action). Cheerios, Andy.