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Is your project a zombie, troll or unicorn? Maybe it’s just confused and needs a rationale

In this blog, Director, Laura Slater looks at common problems with projects, and gives an overview of =mc’s approach to Project Rationale.

=mc’s Systems Model outlines 3 elements in getting your project rationale right.

They are:

Driver: what triggered this project? Why was it initiated? Was this in response to a need (various departments need to find information on our service users), opportunity (a new technology has become available which may support our beneficiaries) up which or problem (staff don’t know how to explain and talk about our research when fundraising)?

Task: what action will be taken in this project? What are you actually going to do? This should start with a verb. For example: Create a database, write a report on something, train people to… etc.

Purpose: What will this project achieve? What will change as a result of the project? In order to…? For example: In order to have all critical information available in one easy to access place; in order to better understand how the technology will enable our work; in order to ensure our people feel confident talking about our research.

If you would like to know about the other 5 elements in the model, find out more on our Project Management training programme or speak to one of our consultants about in-house training.

On our project management programmes, we often come across three problematic types of projects – we call them zombies, unicorns or trolls- that our long-suffering participants are trying to grapple with. Each of these project types seems unmanageable and sometimes even undeliverable. But the good news is they all just have different problems and so all need different solutions.

If you’re suffering under a challenging project – a zombie, a troll or a unicorn – we hope the advice below might help.

Zombies need drivers

Zombies are projects that have been going on for ages. Really they should have died ages ago, but for some reason they have not been formally closed down.


We’re working with a large international organisation at the moment. Two years ago they announced they were having a review of their competence framework. And when this was resolved they would ask us to help them with some training to address skills gaps. Two years later we hear they’re still working on the framework, but every time they have a restructure they have to change it. This is a zombie.

If you’re part of a zombie project team you’ll know these projects can be hard to handle. Slow moving. The problem is no one wants to admit that a former much-loved project is now dead and kind of unnecessary. It therefore drifts on and on and on….

These projects are often lacking in drivers. Drivers are the impetus behind the project. It might be a perceived opportunity or threat, a problem that needs fixing, or a desire to improve or change the way we currently do something. For instance, an emerging issue such as an ageing population among the people we want to help could precipitate a new approach, or funding cuts could mean a programme has to be restructured. But without a driver, the project will fail.

The solution? Two choices. One, go back to your original drivers and ensure they are still valid. If they are, check the urgency and think about where this fits in with other priorities. Maybe even think ‘is there a better way to address this driver?’ It may be your zombie needs to go on the back burner, or it may need more life breathing into it.

And if those drivers are not valid any more, be prepared to shoot the zombie (in the head apparently works best in movies. Our equivalent is to get senior management sanction to simply close it down).

Trolls need tasks

TrollThese projects are the ones that just don’t feel right or may cause massive upset. For some reason, they take on an evil persona in our minds. We avoid them, and always find something better to do. It could be that dealing with this project makes us feel uncomfortable because it is difficult and vague.

Often these projects can involve replacing a major system. So for one of our customers there is a challenge. They do need to have a restructure – but with the inevitable disruptions this will cause, when is a good time to have a restructure? Almost never.

You need to agree there is a challenge to solve (driver). You also agreed the world would be a better place if that problem was solved. But the bridge between those two things is hard to identify. In other words, there is no clear task to deliver the project. Like Tolkien’s trolls, you sit there endlessly discussing ways to cook the dwarves and hobbits, but at no point is a decision reached. Then the sun comes up and it’s all too late – you’ve missed the boat, you’ve turned into a statue. The project has failed. Because of that people feel uncomfortable about the trawl and the effect it has. They can lose confidence more generally in projects.

The solution? Be really clear on what you need to do, making it specific. All too often, we start with actions (I need to produce a report, hold an event etc.). But you need to know why. It also needs to be really specific. So, not “hold an event” but “Create a community event that attracts and engages young people to improve community cohesion.” This tells me broadly what the project is, and why you want to do it. But to turn it into action requires a more specific task, and a series of steps. A more specific project is: “Hold a summer music festival that is programmed by young people, but includes stuff for older residents.” Out of that then comes a list of actions: get a license, talk to the police, and hire a marquee that will get things going and so on.

Unicorns need a purpose

unicornFinally, these are the pet projects that we all know about. Someone’s bright idea for a thing that could/should/would be done. Often they are designed to solve some long-standing challenge. They are mystical and magical, very elegant and beautiful… and somehow untouchable. And they keep jumping away from you. Just when you think you get a handle on it, the project becomes unclear again and you don’t know what to do with it.

For another of our customers the unicorn project is the all singing all dancing database. Just when you think you’ve got it specified down and closed off along comes some new elegant piece of software that promises to do much more and suddenly you have to get into evaluating that. Before you’ve even finished evaluating that a new project comes along for a new specification. The reality is, no database is ever perfect and at some point you simply need to put one into action.

The unicorn may well be very pretty and an amazing thing, but if you don’t know why you need one or what you would do with one once you’ve got it, then you will have a fail on your hands. Time and time again, a project will stumble unless it has a purpose. And all a unicorn has to do is be fit for purpose. Maybe a much less “pretty” but an effective option would still be useful.

The solution to deal with the unicorn? Check you know why you are doing the project – the driver – and clarify your purpose – what will be different and better in your world as a result of what you are doing?

The trick to all these things? Check them against each other. Your driver will identify your task, in order to solve your purpose. Your task must be fit for purpose, and the purpose respond to the driver. Checking these links, and keep checking yourself, will ensure your project doesn’t change into any strange creature and stays manageable.

What’s next?

The =mc Systems Model is an easy-to-use yet highly effective project management approach that is flexible and rigorous, systematic and scalable. It has helped hundreds of our customers, from charities to local government to control and successfully deliver effective projects. For more ideas on this topic, take a look at some more insights around Project Management tools.

Find out about our Project Management training programme here. Want to talk about training for your team or whole organisation? Contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our consultants about in-house training.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...