You’ve been on the project for months. The goals are ill defined, and no one knows who’s in charge of this crazy train. There might be a customer, or there might not. Specifications? Forget it. Analytical methods? Terrible. You can barely tell whether the compounds you’re making are present, and it’s never an Old Faithful of an instrument. Rather, you’re running reaction samples on some rickety contraption that was made when your parents were teenagers, hoping that it doesn’t break down and send someone scrambling to eBay to buy the last remaining replacement part in existence. You report the lack of progress to management over and over, but they mumble, “Keep on plugging away at it. We think this is worth it.”
It’s at this point that the project seems like a zombie from an old movie: flesh hanging from its bones, missing an arm and maybe an ear, shambling along, snapping its jaws at you and other passersby. Your coworkers will hear that you’re working on “that” project and will either chuckle quietly or run away.
Why do these zombie projects exist? Often, the project was intended to address some long-forgotten organizational imperative to save money or perhaps reduce waste in the laboratory. There could be a fabled payoff, like a rumor of buried treasure on a faraway rocky beach. Or a senior manager who’s fond of the science that the project is based on can keep it alive, believing that the project needs “just another couple of months and some more experiments.”
What makes zombie projects so maddening is that many just can’t be killed. You can spend hours in the library, finding the one reference that will show the team that this reaction sequence won’t work, or combing through old notebooks to demonstrate to management that this line of experiments has been tried and failed. You think that you have driven a stake through the project’s heart, that there is no way anyone could argue to continue it. Meetings can conclude with everyone agreeing to end the project, and yet, a few weeks later, someone will say, “I wonder if anyone has tried adding 5% DMSO and seeing if the reaction will work?” And just like that, the project will reach its bony hands out from its resting place, grab your ankle, and come back from the dead.
Not all projects are zombies—far from it. Many, if not most, projects are hard but worthwhile. Our education as chemists and inventors is filled with stories of how a year or two of persistence and a little bit of serendipity broke open decades of frustration and dead ends. Just a little optimism can take you a long way with science. You think that there is no end in sight, and instead, it is just the right kind of project that taxes your patience but allows you to learn important lessons about chemistry.
While I admit that many projects that I have fond memories of tend to be ones where the chemistry has been straightforward, I have many memories of being mired in continual meetings and head-scratching but ultimately finding a solution, be it a new type of instrument, a forgotten old reaction that works well, or a simple switch in reagents. Knowing the difference between “This is really hard, but we’re getting somewhere” and “This is impossible, and we’re getting nowhere” is a difficult judgment call that takes time, wisdom, and experience.
What should you do if you think you’ve been stuck with a zombie project? I recommend routinely asking, “Why are we working on this project?” If the answer seems unclear to you and other people you’ve talked with, that’s a warning sign. I am a big fan of using institutional memory to try to bat it down. Particularly when this type of project has had a long history, it’s best to take every last scrap of documentation that connects even tangentially to the project and read it. Understand where other people at your organization or the general literature have been with the science and this project and where they have failed.
Perhaps there actually is a solution to be found. Or perhaps not, and it’s just another set of disproved hypotheses rising from the dead, and you will have to charge forth with data to slay it once again.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.