Does your department host a congregation of the undead? Every so often, I find zombies lurking in the conference rooms and kitchens of IT departments, harassing managers and staff. The undead are remarkably resilient. They are the bane of the managers they haunt, but they are often of the managers’ own making.
Let me explain. One of my clients, the CEO of a midsize software company, recently asked me what she should do with a bizarre set of recommendations that she had received from a committee of employees. The group had presented her with a hodgepodge of proposals (read: demands) ranging from suggestions about product strategy to requests for enhancements to the employee benefits packages and ideas about completely reorganizing the company.
As she talked about the document, I could see that she was more than just mildly frustrated by the incoherence of the ideas. She talked on and on about how much it would cost to implement the suggestions, how little they would benefit the company and how they contradicted one another. She seemed to be taking the list as a personal assault.
“Do you know what prompted them to make these proposals?” I asked.
“No. It’s not what they are there for,” she replied.
I finally asked her to tell me about the committee that had submitted the recommendations.
The group had been assembled to implement a merger of two support operations. Over the period of a year, they had studied, made recommendations about and overseen the combination of the two groups. Apparently, they had done an excellent job of fulfilling their original mandate.
“So how did they get from that mandate to those recommendations?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“So why do they still exist?” I asked her.
“I don’t know.” She responded through gritted teeth.
There it was. She had an undead committee, an assembled group of energetic, talented and well-meaning people roaming the building looking for a purpose. Once they had gone to all the trouble of learning to work together as a cross-functional team, they apparently decided to move on and tackle bigger and better things.
This kind of problem isn’t restricted to small groups.
In the U.S. government, there’s a classic example. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was formed in 1935 with the purpose of bringing electricity to the populations of remote agricultural areas. The program was a tremendous success, and within 15 years, more than 90% of farms had power, up from only 10% when the program began.
But did the REA gracefully close its doors after its core mission was accomplished in the 1950s? Of course not. In the 1980s, it still existed, having found new things to do. Unable to kill it, the government eventually merged it into another agency.
The undead live on.
Do you have one of those undead groups in your department?
They are relatively easy to spot. Here’s how: For every assemblage of people in your organization, ask a few key questions:
- What are their three most important goals?
- Has this group outlived its original mission?
- If it has outlived its original mission, has management assigned it a new mission?
If any group lacks clearly articulated goals supported by senior management, you may have a pack of zombies on your hands.
- You can do one of two things:
- Throw a party. Congratulate the group on its initial success and then disband it.
Give the group a new purpose. Find an appropriate and useful new job for the group and monitor the scope of its work, just as you would any project.
If neither of those solutions works, move on to more drastic action:
- Ensure that the key players in the group have so much other high-priority work to do that they simply can’t devote time to the haunting.
- Fire some people — but only as a last resort.
So back to my client. “What did you do to disband the group after its work was done?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said, with a look of realization. “I assumed that they would just stop meeting.” She suddenly understood that she had a zombie problem and that it was one of her own making.
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