A vampire is hard to kill. Just look at the relative indestructibility of Dracula or (to get a bit meta) the continued relevance of the insidious Twilight saga. These vampires (or books, in the case of Twilight) get stabbed, shot, punched, hacked, slashed, critically lambasted, etc. but only some very specific conditions will kill them for good (ex. wooden stake to the heart, a brave editor, etc.). And often, just when the hero’s think they’ve FINALLY done it, the vampire gets resurrected for the sequel… exhausting.
How frightening it must be to face a foe that seems dead, but won’t stop coming back to be a real pain in the neck (pun intended). Imagine how draining (pun intended) it must feel to be so close to finally resolving the problem, only to see it rise from the dead (pun…is that a pun?) again and again. There’s a reason why vampires have captivated our imaginations — they’re scary! They won’t die for good! And they’re sexy! Because humans will ALWAYS find ways to get horny about things they shouldn’t.
Well folks, I’m here to tell you about something just as scary as vampires but waaaaaaaaaaaay less sexy. A thing that simply won’t die; that surprises and exhausts us with its immortality. Of course, I am referring to the Vampire Project.
What is the Vampire Project you ask? It is a fiend that anyone who’s ever worked in a human organization knows.
It’s the internal alignment initiative that everyone knows is a waste of time, several people try to stop, but it keeps getting restarted regardless. It’s the Partner co-development project that everyone can see is going NOWHERE… but no one has the power to kill it. It is the flaccid data improvement initiative that Mr/Mrs. Director Person tried to kill, only to have Higher Director Person override and un-kill it. It’s the product cooked up with no customer input that (shockingly) no customer wants, but Senior Important People’s ego’s are too sensitive to bury the sunk cost. Or it’s the cringe-worthy corporate branding program that everyone hates and advises against, but that stays alive (or undead perhaps) due to this or that reason.
You know, the Vampire Project. It’s a disliked project that just won’t die and it sucks the life out of everyone it touches.
In many ways, our organizations are like the crew of kids in the Vampire films. We all sit back on our couch and proclaim the idiocy of walking into the creepy basement alone, yet we know they’re still going to do it. Talk to employees about many floundering projects and they’ll usually all recognize the need to change things…but still it moves forward unchanged.
Like a pack of teens in a spooky mansion, corporations often ignore warning signs and disregard opportunities to leave before shit goes south (i.e. bail on failing projects). Our companies have a hard time staying out of the clutches of vampire projects. Sometimes it even seems like we intentionally build the “spookiest” mansions possible with inexorable layers of silos. These organizational walls cast shadows on our activities and block us from “sticking together.” Vampires always win when the group splits up, and silos keep our teams from connecting.
Employees generally have a good intuition about whether a project will succeed. But corporate structures and manager egos often reject this common sense. A colleague recently told me about a vampire project that had all the usual characteristics: it was a cross-divisional alignment initiative lacking clear authority lines and with ambiguous outcomes. Yikes! The fuzziness of roles and the murkiness of the priorities kept the project sucking the life out of everyone involved while the disjointed authorities meant that no one could really kill it. And manager egos made things even scarier.
Manager egos are similar to the role that alcohol plays in clouding judgement at the teen party. Jungle Juice gives Jock Character 1 the confidence to stupidly reawaken the ancient lich — ignoring obvious signs that it is a bad idea — while the manager-fear-of-admitting-failure fuels the lifespan of vampire projects. This specific draught of manager hubris keeps folks from thinking logically about the need for a project to end.
Perhaps the magic that powers the immortality of Vampire Projects comes from the hubris of Very Important Senior People. That would be a convenient explanation: why did the vampire (project) come back to life? Blame the douchey jock guy (aka Very Important Senior Person). But that is a little too convenient. After all, the jock guy (manager) is only playing the role he was cast.
The endurance of vampire projects comes down to a much more primal human emotion. Like in the vampire movies, things come down to fear.
What gives the vampire power? Fear. Why do many failing projects keep getting resurrected? Someone is afraid to admit defeat. Fear to admit failure, to “rock the boat,” to speak up, or the fear to break inertia are at the heart of why vampire projects persist.
We humans fear what we can’t see (clearly). The house during the day looks like an old rotting eye-sore that we want to demolish. It ain’t scary, it’s a shit hole. But at night! It is a horrifying, mysterious lair of unseen terrors! Darkness and ambiguity have always frightened humans. We fear the possible terror far more than we fear the ones we can confront head-on.
Vampires know this and they stay out of the sunlight where things are clear and bright. Similarly, vampire projects gain strength when conditions are fuzzy. When there are murky goals, blurred lines of authority, fuzzy interaction patterns, and ambiguous priorities, a vampire project grows.
What then is the “wooden stake” of a vampire project — the fabled weapon to end these terrors? Well, it’s similar to another famed vampire-slaying weapon: sunlight. Clarity and clear lines of accountability are the bane of vampire projects. Shining light on dead-end projects brings a level of attention that vampire (projects) detest. Tearing down walls in the creepy house (silos) allows light to shine in from outside.
Bravery is required too. It takes courage to speak up and say what everyone is thinking but no one wants to say. Many are willing to bitch in hushed tones with their work buds about how they’re going about this project all wrong, or how this group in charge doesn’t understand things. Yet we’re terrified by the sustained explaining and inertia-breaking legwork required to end the stuff we’re bitching about. Just the other day yon narrator here went on quite the eloquent tirade against the soul-sucking structural flaws of an internal development initiative. Have I lifted a single finger to do something about it? No I haven't. Le sigh…
Like a wooden stake, sharply-worded and sustained communication can pierce the vampire project for a fatal blow. So don’t be like me! Be brave! Once the vampire (project) starts to sizzle from clarity of sunlight, it’s time to finish it off with consistent stabs of open communication. Align that sucker back into the grave, lest it return when you least expect it.
How many times in the movies do the hero’s look at each other in false relief that the demon is dead, only for the expected jump scare to bring it back? I get shudders thinking about some of the meeting invites to hit my calendar over the years: initiatives I thought were long dead, but returned with an Outlook “bloo-beeping” sound to suck away my time.
Vampire projects die when we tear down the spooky mansions (silos), stab them with sharp stakes (good communication), and keep sustained sunlight shining on them (clarity & accountability).
And now that I’ve finally beaten this metaphor to death, I promise I’ll finish it off so it doesn’t return from the grave either…
Next you face one of these vampire projects, be brave! Pull out a wooden stake and stab that sucker right through the heart! Figuratively please, as the literal act of this will land you in jail. Don’t be a criminal. But be brave! Speak up and shine light to scare away these tricksy projects for good!