Zombie Solutions — An Enterprise Nightmare

John’s team has been chosen for greatness.

The opportunity: to facilitate their client’s customer service modernisation.

The problem to solve: the customer service department needs to be able to “see what their customers see” in order to maintain a high level of quality. They explain that their old content platform had a mirror platform customer service agents could use to click through all the screens — to “see what the customer sees,” but with the new system, that feature is gone.

John and his team jump right in — eager to slay a dragon — and quickly learn the initiative has actually been running for a while. In fact, three separate attempts over the course of 18 months, all under the same project name — Adviser View — have been made to address the need within the new system:

For a short while, it seemed that the project would be shelved, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief at not having to deal with the nagging problem. But customer service problems persisted, and the rising costs were now creating an alarming sense of urgency. Hence the great “opportunity”.

The original excitement at getting to be a bit of a hero was turning to dread. John asked himself and eventually, everyone around him the obvious and highly taboo question we all ask ourselves sometimes: “Why, exactly, are we doing this?”

No one seemed to have a good answer, despite the fact that everyone was sure that the thing definitely, absolutely, had to be done. John’s team agreed — this surge to greatness was becoming a nightmare. The thing just wouldn’t die, nobody knew where it came from, and didn’t have the power to kill it. But it was now his problem.

Sound familiar? We see this time after time in big enterprises. Technology efforts can often persist so long that the original problem or circumstance has either changed or gone away. Sometimes the original problem wasn’t even validated. Now there’s no way to trace it back, and the project’s taken on a life of its own. We call it a Zombie Solution.

How to spot a potential zombie solution

Zombie solutions often rear their heads when we’re given ownership of an already existing programme or project, especially one that’s had problems in the past. You start working on a project and you may soon begin to get an uneasy feeling. Perhaps you think it’s a shortcoming on your part — that you don’t “get” what’s going on — and give those already involved the benefit of the doubt. But when you start to dig, you may find some of the following:


How do zombie solutions happen, and why?

It’s important to understand how zombie solutions happen in the first place, so that you can identify them and move on from the confusion.

You have to start at the top. In very large enterprises, decision-making is often one or two layers of management from the “facts on the ground”, so there can be problems at the executive level:

At the director and middle-management layer, the problems carry over, but manifest differently:

So, leaders are doing what they are meant to do, providing direction based on their experience, and middle managers are doing what they’re meant to do, implementing based on their abilities.

Add to the mix that enterprises can have a slow pace of change, and now you have a dynamic where new information is likely to come in, but more likely to be discounted because the cost to the individual may be the risk of social ostracism. Amplify this scenario across a big enough group and now you’ve got a shambling Zombie Solution that’s taken on a life of its own. Run, John, Run!

But what can you do?

One of three things happens at this point:


Back to our hero, John. After pursuing Zombie Solutions for well over a year, something had to change. John knew he needed to address the issues methodically to get clarity on what problem(s) his team should put their efforts into solving. He managed to get enough C-level buy-in to do some research.

What John’s team found in their research was that there were in fact several problems that could be solved by different interpretations of “seeing what the customer sees,” but most often they could be solved without actually “seeing what the customer sees.”

John now understood how this initiative’s Zombie Solution came to be. Looked at as a whole, under pressure to perform, customer service agents with insufficient training and understanding of the new platform were asked what the problem was, and their response was naturally the most obvious thing that had changed, that they could no longer could “see what the customer sees.”

The failures were systemic

John succeeded where others failed because he was able to approach the issue from the ground up and logically investigate and verify the sources of the problem, rather than blindly embark on a Zombie Solution journey. Remember — it’s never too late to verify why you’re doing the thing you’re doing.

If you feel you may have a Zombie Solution on your hands, consider tackling the problem by doing the following:

Being a good Zombie Solution spotter won’t save your life, but it will save you and everybody around you a lot of pain.