How to Spot Zombie Organizations

With current proliferation of Zombie movies, it’s probably timely to consider both what useful messages are hidden within Zombie movies, as a cultural art-form and also what we can usefully transfer into the way we lead and manage organizations.
To start with, what do we really know about Zombies?

Firstly their key characteristic is that they are only marginally alive, or as we experts note as "the living dead" Zombies'

a) movement is always clumsy,
b) hunger for fresh human flesh is insatiable, and
c) ability to work things out for themselves (like how to open doors and drive cars) or any complex co-ordinated activity is severely restricted.

These characteristics also apply to “Zombie Organisations”.
Zombie Organisations are clumsy because they pay no attention to their context. They are always stunned when the environment changes, the value of their current products, services and business models suddenly declines and the customer goes somewhere else, or a new high-value customer appears. Their response to change is always clumsy and tends to preserve political structures, value architectures and social narratives that justify their Zombie behaviours,  at the expense of the front-line.
Zombie Organisations are always hungry for “talent”, invest money in what they believe are talented people and are always surprised when the talented turn out to more ambitious than talented, the  good people leave and the supposedly “untalented” become increasingly disengaged. Their hunger for customers means that they will preserve high-volume, low margin commodity services and transactions at the expense of niche products which indicate the future forms that value will take.

Zombie Organisations are perpetually surprised by crises which in retrospect were highly predictable. Their failure to be curious, to revisit their Purpose, and to think systemically means that they purchase solutions which institutionalise their problems or tend to make them worse. A classic example is the consumption of engagement survey methodologies which lead to even more paternalistic attitudes by leaders who were originally recruited on the basis of their submissive/ deferential behaviour, who are then told to push the engagement survey dials by “aping” leadership behaviours that contradict traditional Zombie management culture. Another classic failure is the tendency to apply lean thinking to making current transactions more efficient when they are already obsolete.

The first and most important step to recovery is to accept that your organisation may be a Zombie Organisation (ZO) with Zombie Leaders and Zombie followers with varying concentrations of Zombie behaviours at different levels and within different specialisms.
Further options include helping the Zombie Organisation to self-destruct or to isolate the dominant Zombie culture within its own organisation and then watch it fall apart. This can be done by pretending to be a Zombie yourself and exaggerating Zombie characteristics within the organisation (the equivalent of trapping them in a bus that goes over a cliff through offering them some live flesh to consume and then jumping out before it goes over a cliff). In other words, give them more of what they want, but use it to separate them from the parts of the organization that can be saved.
A less destructive and entertaining approach is to introduce the idea of the “Zombie Organization” and its characteristics and to point out Zombie behaviours in meetings at work. This could include clumsy un-coordinated walking (with shaky asynchronous hand and leg movements) following others into meetings, wide-eyed unblinking staring combined with salivation from the corner of the mouth, mutterings of “flesh, must have more flesh” and an inability to manage the door handle to exit the room at the end of meetings.

This might even lead to personal insights like "I think I went a bit Zombie in that meeting, why didn't you stop me talking rubbish for so long?"

A more systemic approach includes setting up a formal "Institute for the Study of Zombie Organizational Studies" with peer-reviewed papers and a prestigious editorial board to explore the field of ZO studies. Unfortunately, this may have the effect of institutionalising the problem instead of solving it.


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