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Jake Breeden

If You Work on a Zombie Team, Kill the Zombies

Teams tend to become useless over time. Learn to spot and kill the walking dead.

Look at your calendar, and you might find some zombies. Here's how zombies disguise themselves at work:

  • Task forces
  • Cross-functional teams
  • "V" (virtual) teams
  • "Tiger teams"
  • Centers of excellence
  • Special interest groups
  • Action learning project teams

Each of these can be good, useful and productive. In fact, each of these may have been necessary, at some point. But just as all order tends toward disorder, and all information tends toward noise, all workgroups tend toward lifeless clusters of the walking dead.

That's the second thermodynamic law of teams:

Team Entropy: workgroups tend toward uselessness over time.

There is a half-life for every team. What can you do about it? First, learn to spot a team that is walking dead -- a zombie team. You can do that today.

Ask everyone on the team/group/project, including yourself, to answer this question: "Why do we exist?" Each person should answer that question silently and individually (not as a team!). Then look at the answers. If the members of the team, right now, agree about achieving some measurable objective, then relax. You're not dealing with a zombie.

But if there's not agreement, or -- even worse -- if there is agreement on something other than acheiving a measurable outcome, kill the zombie.

Kill the zombie quickly, and move away. Resist the urge to heal the zombie -- that's what they want you to do. Resist the urge to have a session in which you try to gain clarity, get on the same page, understand your common purpose, find common ground, or do anything else you'll feel drawn to as a nice, nurturing, caring human. Saving zombies feels better than killing them -- at first. That will be your instinct.

Teams, once formed, have inertia. Once they exist, they need to continue to exist.

That's the first thermodynamic law of teams:

Team Inertia: once a team is created, it wants to stay alive.

Every sports team has an off-season, which is a healthy way to avoid the unintended consequences of team inertia. The team disperses. The players get away and rest, or work on their own personal skills, or work on something unrelated to the team. When the team regroups, before the season begins, some members are gone. And some new ones have arrived.

This process of regeneration is critical. A good coach helps the team understand the specific mission of this team, in this season, beyond simply winning games. It must be a new, different mission each season.

The 1995 South African rugby team had a vivid reason to exist, as the film Invictus showed powerfully. Their desired outcome was winning a championship as a way of proving their nation could come together around a common cause.

Your team at work doesn't need to have such a grand ambition. But it does need a clear one. If it lacks that clear vision, kill the zombie team. Have an off-season, no matter if it's just a week.

Start a new team - maybe all the members will stay the same, but they probably won't. Get clear on a measurable outcome for the team. And remember, that fresh, new team with a clear outcome is destined to become a zombie too. Once it does, kill it, have an off-season, and start fresh again.

Or perhaps, once you spot the zombie, you'll find that you should kill it forever, with no regeneration needed. It takes courage and leadership to make that declaration. If it's needed, I hope someone on your team is willing to make the courageous decision to act with finality.

Learn to spot -- and kill -- the zombie teams at your work. Like the zombies of old movies, they move slowly and do their damage slowly but persistently. Once you kill a zombie, you'll find more energy, productivity and resources for getting work done.


About the Author

Jake Breeden is the author of Tipping Sacred Cows. He is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education, where he’s taught leaders at Google, IBM, Starbucks and others.