This Month’s Pattern *

86 Template Zombies

The project team allows its work to be driven by templates instead of by the thought processes necessary to deliver products.

When you find a project team that is focused on producing a standard document rather than on considering the content of that document, then you are in the land of the template zombies. This obsession with filling in the blanks is characterized by quality checks that work like this:

    "I have finished the Project Initiation Document."
    "How do you know the document is finished?"
    "Because I have written something under each one of the headings."
    "Oh good, now we can get it signed off."

In the land of the template zombies, form takes precedence. It is not necessary to think about the content of the document. It is not really necessary to think at all. The important thing is to have something— anything—under each of the prescribed headings. Not surprisingly, template zombies are adept in the art of cutting and pasting and ignoring anything that does not fit the dictates of the template.

We are not saying that templates are necessarily a bad idea. In fact, they provide a very good way to transmit experience, particularly through checklists and a framework in which to ask questions. The problem occurs when the template becomes fixed in stone and the organization now assumes that every project is a carbon copy of the one that went before it. Template zombies believe that if they put something— anything—in all the boxes on the template, then they are guaranteed success. Rather than facing the awkward reality that every project is different and treating the template as a guide, template zombies succumb to the temptation to put their mind in neutral and fill in the blanks.

At one review meeting I attended, team members were discussing a design idea. Someone objected that the template made no provision for capturing that idea. It was supposed to be covered later on, in another document. Rather than changing the template, the team simply rejected the idea.

In another organization, the team rebelled. The Powers That Be dictated that the team should use a set of standard templates drawn up by external methodologists. The templates represented one of the worst examples of Paint By Numbers. Adherence to the numbers would have ensured failure. The team members went underground and used approaches that enabled them to get real work done. Then, to satisfy the methodological rules, they engaged a clerk to fill in the fairly meaningless templates. Nobody ever read the resulting documents, but they were considered satisfactory because they contained the required number of pages.


If you find yourself determinedly agonizing over always putting something under each template heading, then chances are that you are being driven by form rather than content and that you are heading toward the template-zombie zone. Similarly, if your development process prevents you from including a model, or anything else that is useful, because it does not fit the template, you may already be in the template-zombie zone. When conversations about the project center on the format, layout, fonts, and numbering systems, then the template zombies are stumbling through the dark toward you.

* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.


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