Killing product zombies: a five-step approach "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs February 02 2022 False Guest Post, Product Development, Product Strategy, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1461 Product Management 5.844

Killing product zombies: a five-step approach

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As product people, we all have been practising building the right products rightly, yet if we look around, we find features, processes, and products that aren’t functioning well. This article is an overview of a five-step approach, a trigger list, that a product team can refer to identify and kill such non-functioning product zombies.

Once we acknowledge the existence of such non-working elements within our product or portfolio, we must diligently get rid of them. The list of zombies we have is often just the tip of the iceberg. We seldom discuss discontinuing a feature/product as passionately as creating new ones. Proactively identifying and killing the product zombies is as essential as incepting new ones.

Each step below deserves a dedicated article to cover the depth and breadth of this topic. Still, here is an overview for getting you started.

Why call it zombies?

The sense of achievement is infused very deep into our DNA. Unless we think of removing or discontinuing something as an accomplishment, we will not feel passionate about it. “Killing product zombies” is like putting a gamification hat on, making the process of sunsetting non-working features and products more satisfying.

Zombies are mythical creatures that eat our brains. They are tough to kill, and they drag us down. Product zombies are no different except that they very much exist. Killing them is tricky unless you change your thinking.

Step 1: The mindset change

We cannot move forward on this journey without a changed mindset.

“Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it.” – Steve Maraboli.

Myspace is an excellent example of how ignoring product zombies resulted in losing over one million users per month. Instead of optimising the user experience, driving ad revenue became a top priority, and the site was quickly saturated with many ad banners. My favourite one is Blockbuster. Blockbuster was too focused on the profits it was raking in from its video stores. They ignored all signs of a zombie, which eventually destroyed the company.

Having a mentality of outcome rather than output is critical when you discontinue a feature, process or product. Instead of thinking about what we are losing, think about what we will gain. Thinking about the success matrix, failure criteria and challenging ourselves is critical.

Concept killing will help the product teams not to invest too much, and killing a zombie, if identified, becomes a straightforward step. This means we are challenging ideas at the design stage, listening to everyones’ opinion irrespective of their experience or the product life cycle stage. Creating an environment where the product team can express their views openly is essential for a successful zombie kill.

Though the nitty-gritty details of killing a zombie differ slightly considering whether you are killing a feature, process, or established product, the fundamental mindset is the same. Ensure you find and evaluate zombies objectively at every level.

Find out more about the mindset that kills product thinking.

Step 2: Finding zombies

Once you understand the importance of killing product zombies, the next challenge is to find them. Some of the prominent areas where you can start your search are listed below.

  • The gut feeling of the product team outweighs all other factors. Your team is often aware of the product’s troublesome features/process or even the product itself.
  • Reach out to other teams (e.g. higher management, Sales and Marketing) you work with to understand perspectives outside your core team. Do these teams avoid talking about the product/feature?
  • Listen to your customers. Do your customers know about your portfolio synergy? Do they care about knowing? Keep your ears always open for feedback from your target users.
  • Check with your support team about which features/products customers seldom question, and when they do, it takes ages to get back to the customer.

These and many other aspects can help you start thinking about a zombie.

Step 3: Evaluate

Once you have a list of potential zombies, it is time to evaluate them. Many factors can define your evaluation results; here are some top ones.

  • Company Strategy: Does identified zombie product fit into the company strategy? Or does your feature/process fit into your product strategy? If not, you have zombies at your disposal. Google shut down Inbox as it did not suit the company strategy despite a positive response from the users.
  • Cannibalisation: Some features or products cannibalise others. Identify if that is the case for your zombie list. Coca-Cola Zero sugar cannibalised the downward spiral of Diet Coke a few years back. When Apple launched the iPhone, it cannibalised iPod sales. Eventually, Apple terminated the new product development in 2019.
  • Not used anymore: Evaluate if your feature or product worked very well in the past; however, users are not using it. You should consider if you want to discontinue working for a small customer base. Entertainment companies pivoted away from CDs and cassettes over the period due to technology and user behaviour. Another example is the sunset of Google toolbar, which became a zombie after most users switched to Chrome.
  • Weaker roadmap: This forces teams to keep adding features to fill the bandwidth. In the end, you add less value to solve the user’s problem. A weaker roadmap is often a sign of a zombie.
  • Trust data: Trusting the information you collect is essential rather than a bias toward emotions. When you talk about discontinuing something, you will often hear emotional sentences; filtering them out is critical.
  • If backed with data, missed revenue projections can help you identify if you are dealing with a zombie.

Avoid getting biased while evaluating. Do not overlook the dependency product code may have on a feature. Or if the sales team extensively uses a feature/product in the sales pitch. Make sure you acknowledge all dependencies with your stakeholders.

Discover more insights on managing misaligned stakeholders. 

Step 4: Killing a zombie

After a thorough evaluation, killing the zombies is where the real fun starts. Make sure you plan similar to what you do to deploy any other feature. Here are a few pointers:

  • The first step is to reduce the visibility of your zombie feature/product. Make sure you do not onboard new users on your zombies.
  • In some cases, you have to adopt the feature, process, or product to make it relevant again. However, you should avoid the trap of putting the plasters. Define a measure for a successful kill and follow diligently.
  • You will have to transition your existing users to new alternatives. This duration could be longer depending on the domain and the product. The sunset will be slower in such cases, but you have to keep the momentum going as a product team.
  • Be mindful of the cost of killing zombies. Estimate it before you begin the process and agree with your stakeholders.

Many more factors like the company culture, domain, and other macro-environmental factors will define the procedure that suits a particular product team.

Step 5: Successful kill

I believe the sunsetting of the product or feature is only successful when we learn from the experience.

“Change is the end result of all true learning.” ― Leo Buscaglia.

The sense of learning over the loss is critical to having a successful mindset change for your next zombie kill. You should feel good about it.

Overcommunicate. Often, miscommunication makes a correct zombie kill a nightmare. If you onboard customers and users earlier in your zombie killing process, you will be surprised to see them being more pragmatic than you believed. You can see this again and again with companies like Slack, Google, and Atlassian.

The most important thing is to celebrate at the end. The sense of accomplishment needs to be felt by everyone involved. Celebrations will pave the way for future iterations of such a process, eventually helping change the mindset.

In conclusion

Create, maintain, and destroy are the three pillars of any successful product/portfolio. Following the above five-step approach of finding-evaluating-killing product zombies with a great mindset and robust success assessment can result in a well-toned product/portfolio.

Killing zombies is challenging but not impossible. As humans, we are terrible at letting go of things. Many companies like Yahoo, Nokia, Blackberry, Kodak, and Blockbuster are great examples of what happens when you befriend your product zombies and nourish them. Eventually, these zombies killed them! We should learn from such failed products/portfolios. Start small and try to make one successful zombie kill. You will be surprised to see its effect on team culture.

Each product team and company has a different culture. Sharing your experience with others and offering help will aid change the culture and reducing #ProductWaste.

Discover more content on Product strategy. Find out more about what Swanand Marulkar is up to at ProductTank Heidelberg.

As product people, we all have been practising building the right products rightly, yet if we look around, we find features, processes, and products that aren't functioning well. This article is an overview of a five-step approach, a trigger list, that a product team can refer to identify and kill such non-functioning product zombies. Once we acknowledge the existence of such non-working elements within our product or portfolio, we must diligently get rid of them. The list of zombies we have is often just the tip of the iceberg. We seldom discuss discontinuing a feature/product as passionately as creating new ones. Proactively identifying and killing the product zombies is as essential as incepting new ones. Each step below deserves a dedicated article to cover the depth and breadth of this topic. Still, here is an overview for getting you started.

Why call it zombies?

The sense of achievement is infused very deep into our DNA. Unless we think of removing or discontinuing something as an accomplishment, we will not feel passionate about it. "Killing product zombies" is like putting a gamification hat on, making the process of sunsetting non-working features and products more satisfying. Zombies are mythical creatures that eat our brains. They are tough to kill, and they drag us down. Product zombies are no different except that they very much exist. Killing them is tricky unless you change your thinking.

Step 1: The mindset change

We cannot move forward on this journey without a changed mindset. "Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it." – Steve Maraboli. Myspace is an excellent example of how ignoring product zombies resulted in losing over one million users per month. Instead of optimising the user experience, driving ad revenue became a top priority, and the site was quickly saturated with many ad banners. My favourite one is Blockbuster. Blockbuster was too focused on the profits it was raking in from its video stores. They ignored all signs of a zombie, which eventually destroyed the company. Having a mentality of outcome rather than output is critical when you discontinue a feature, process or product. Instead of thinking about what we are losing, think about what we will gain. Thinking about the success matrix, failure criteria and challenging ourselves is critical. Concept killing will help the product teams not to invest too much, and killing a zombie, if identified, becomes a straightforward step. This means we are challenging ideas at the design stage, listening to everyones' opinion irrespective of their experience or the product life cycle stage. Creating an environment where the product team can express their views openly is essential for a successful zombie kill. Though the nitty-gritty details of killing a zombie differ slightly considering whether you are killing a feature, process, or established product, the fundamental mindset is the same. Ensure you find and evaluate zombies objectively at every level.

Find out more about the mindset that kills product thinking.

Step 2: Finding zombies

Once you understand the importance of killing product zombies, the next challenge is to find them. Some of the prominent areas where you can start your search are listed below.
  • The gut feeling of the product team outweighs all other factors. Your team is often aware of the product's troublesome features/process or even the product itself.
  • Reach out to other teams (e.g. higher management, Sales and Marketing) you work with to understand perspectives outside your core team. Do these teams avoid talking about the product/feature?
  • Listen to your customers. Do your customers know about your portfolio synergy? Do they care about knowing? Keep your ears always open for feedback from your target users.
  • Check with your support team about which features/products customers seldom question, and when they do, it takes ages to get back to the customer.
These and many other aspects can help you start thinking about a zombie.

Step 3: Evaluate

Once you have a list of potential zombies, it is time to evaluate them. Many factors can define your evaluation results; here are some top ones.
  • Company Strategy: Does identified zombie product fit into the company strategy? Or does your feature/process fit into your product strategy? If not, you have zombies at your disposal. Google shut down Inbox as it did not suit the company strategy despite a positive response from the users.
  • Cannibalisation: Some features or products cannibalise others. Identify if that is the case for your zombie list. Coca-Cola Zero sugar cannibalised the downward spiral of Diet Coke a few years back. When Apple launched the iPhone, it cannibalised iPod sales. Eventually, Apple terminated the new product development in 2019.
  • Not used anymore: Evaluate if your feature or product worked very well in the past; however, users are not using it. You should consider if you want to discontinue working for a small customer base. Entertainment companies pivoted away from CDs and cassettes over the period due to technology and user behaviour. Another example is the sunset of Google toolbar, which became a zombie after most users switched to Chrome.
  • Weaker roadmap: This forces teams to keep adding features to fill the bandwidth. In the end, you add less value to solve the user's problem. A weaker roadmap is often a sign of a zombie.
  • Trust data: Trusting the information you collect is essential rather than a bias toward emotions. When you talk about discontinuing something, you will often hear emotional sentences; filtering them out is critical.
  • If backed with data, missed revenue projections can help you identify if you are dealing with a zombie.
Avoid getting biased while evaluating. Do not overlook the dependency product code may have on a feature. Or if the sales team extensively uses a feature/product in the sales pitch. Make sure you acknowledge all dependencies with your stakeholders.

Discover more insights on managing misaligned stakeholders. 

Step 4: Killing a zombie

After a thorough evaluation, killing the zombies is where the real fun starts. Make sure you plan similar to what you do to deploy any other feature. Here are a few pointers:
  • The first step is to reduce the visibility of your zombie feature/product. Make sure you do not onboard new users on your zombies.
  • In some cases, you have to adopt the feature, process, or product to make it relevant again. However, you should avoid the trap of putting the plasters. Define a measure for a successful kill and follow diligently.
  • You will have to transition your existing users to new alternatives. This duration could be longer depending on the domain and the product. The sunset will be slower in such cases, but you have to keep the momentum going as a product team.
  • Be mindful of the cost of killing zombies. Estimate it before you begin the process and agree with your stakeholders.
Many more factors like the company culture, domain, and other macro-environmental factors will define the procedure that suits a particular product team.

Step 5: Successful kill

I believe the sunsetting of the product or feature is only successful when we learn from the experience. "Change is the end result of all true learning." ― Leo Buscaglia. The sense of learning over the loss is critical to having a successful mindset change for your next zombie kill. You should feel good about it. Overcommunicate. Often, miscommunication makes a correct zombie kill a nightmare. If you onboard customers and users earlier in your zombie killing process, you will be surprised to see them being more pragmatic than you believed. You can see this again and again with companies like Slack, Google, and Atlassian. The most important thing is to celebrate at the end. The sense of accomplishment needs to be felt by everyone involved. Celebrations will pave the way for future iterations of such a process, eventually helping change the mindset.

In conclusion

Create, maintain, and destroy are the three pillars of any successful product/portfolio. Following the above five-step approach of finding-evaluating-killing product zombies with a great mindset and robust success assessment can result in a well-toned product/portfolio. Killing zombies is challenging but not impossible. As humans, we are terrible at letting go of things. Many companies like Yahoo, Nokia, Blackberry, Kodak, and Blockbuster are great examples of what happens when you befriend your product zombies and nourish them. Eventually, these zombies killed them! We should learn from such failed products/portfolios. Start small and try to make one successful zombie kill. You will be surprised to see its effect on team culture. Each product team and company has a different culture. Sharing your experience with others and offering help will aid change the culture and reducing #ProductWaste.

Discover more content on Product strategy. Find out more about what Swanand Marulkar is up to at ProductTank Heidelberg.

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