Lab Notes

Zombies, Dead Bodies and Heroes

WHAT IS IT

A way to understand and assess historical / current activities related to the problem we’re trying to solve.

WHY WE DO IT

To help us understand where the opportunities and land-mines are. Every organization has initiatives they’ve tried (at some point) that fall into one of three categories:

1. Zombies: Neither dead or alive, these initiatives are walking around the organization – taking time, energy and resources. The only choice is to kill them, or bring them back to life. Left “un-dead” zombies will suck the life and energy from the organization.

2. Dead Bodies: Keep them buried. These are things that have been tried, didn’t work, and shouldn’t be considered again. We must learn from what went wrong and avoid repeating that at all cost.

3. Heroes: The unexpected heroes. These are the surprise successes — successful beyond our wildest expectations — the things people always point to as “we should do more like _____.” There’s likely a lot we can learn, what worked well and why, how can we apply that learning to other things we’re doing?

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HOW TO DO IT

Write three headlines (Zombies, Dead Bodies, Heroes) on a whiteboard or two large sticky notes.

1. Explain to the group what we mean when we say Zombie, Dead Body and Heroes (above).

2. Describe that we’re looking for any/all ideas/initiatives during this part of our session that they feel are zombies, dead bodies or heroes, and more importantly — why they’re classified as one or the other.

3. The first couple will be tougher to get at, as the group starts to understand the exercise and starts to feel more comfortable talking about what’s been done.

4. It will begin to get easier as the group talks more and begins to let loose, pay attention to the disagreements as much as the agreements. The conversations that happen around why somebody feels an idea should be categorized a certain way are the most important — that’s where the lessons learned really live.

5. When the group starts to slow down, push on specific parts of the org, asking questions like “is there anything we’ve done in marketing or any technology choices made that would fit up here?”

6. Encourage people to feel comfortable, it’s not a judgement of their ability or performance — we’re looking for things we can learn from (good/bad) that will help us in the future. In the best cases, you’ll find ideas (Zombies) that can be resurrected and made better by a Hero.

The whole exercise can be completed in as little as 15-30 minutes and never takes more than an hour. If you’re approaching an hour, try to combine / summarize a few from the list and wrap it up. Too much focus on what hasn’t worked / isn’t working can be bad for morale.

WHY IT WORKS

This method allows us to uncover what has worked well and what hasn’t and WHY inside of an organization. It will allow us to uncover potential risks and blockers before we hit them. It will also give us a chance to learn from exemplars so that we are more likely to succeed the next time around.

BEST PRACTICES

It can feel like a downer if you spend all of your time on the zombies and dead bodies. That’s why it’s important to celebrate the Heroes. Also, keep in mind that even if something is a zombie or dead body, there may be a hero hidden in that scenario that you can elevate. The purpose is to set the team up for a successful mission based on past learning, not wallow in the past.

Matthew is a walking dichotomy: a strategic designer, a metric-driven UA guy, a believer in traditional AND emerging media. He’s an economist and a songwriter, a creative soul who loves numbers, a lover of dogs, a fighter for the arts, and a darn fine cook to boot.

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