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Career Tips

How to kill a zombie (project)

by Brought to you by ACS Career Navigator
March 6, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 9


An illustration of a zombie's hand breaking through the ground, holding a rolled-up document.
Credit: Shutterstock

We all have them: those projects that seem to go on forever that you just can’t quite finish, no matter how hard you try. They always require one more piece of data to be collected, one more editing pass on the report, or one more person’s review, and the final deadline keeps moving further and further into the future. So how do you successfully close out a project that just won’t die so that you can move on to other projects?

Publish an immovable deadline or budget. Often, due dates can slip because nothing is forcing the issue. By announcing the date when the results will be released or the document made public, the team can focus on completing as much as they can within that time frame. Alternatively, if the project has a fixed budget (whether in terms of money or hours of your time), you can mention when you are close to reaching the end of it and determine how much more can be done with the resources that are left.

Define a firm scope. Scope creep is an all-too-common problem: we keep wanting to do things bigger and better, so we add more and more to the project until the result is trying to be everything to everyone. If this is your problem, go back and review the initial parameters for the project, and determine what is within the scope of the project and what isn’t. Maybe some of those out-of-scope ideas can be turned into the next project—started after this one is finished.

Build on solid ground. Maybe the reason you can’t finish is that the assumptions and parameters continue to change, so everything you do is outdated as soon as you do it. In this case, you might want to take a step back and figure out why things are changing. Do you need to address the changing parameters? Or just pick and work under one set of conditions?

Agree to disagree. Maybe the project can’t end because some people involved disagree about how it should be done, what should be included, or what conditions should be used or discussed. In this case, the person leading the project may have to use their authority to make a decision in order to get things moving forward again.

Identify the actual customer. Maybe the reason you are having a hard time getting it right is that the person directing the work is not getting instructions and feedback from the customer. If multiple intermediaries are reviewing the project, the parameters could be getting muddled along the way, and so your submission does not match the customer’s expectations. Try to get very clear directions from the customer as to exactly what is needed to complete the deliverables.

Zombie projects can be hard to put to rest but not impossible. While some projects may be so frustrating you want to run away from your coworkers, that is never a good idea. It’s much better to figure out what is driving all the delays and then find a way around them. Delivering a perfect product is always the ideal, but delivering something imperfect is much better than not delivering anything.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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