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Author's profile photo Sean MacNiven

Plants versus Zombies and Community Management

Plants versus Zombies and Community Management

I don’t get addicted to many games. I played Angry Birds for a while, got lost in Defender I & II for a couple of hundred levels, and in the mists of a very distant past, I spent time in the mythical town of Spielberg slaying Cheetaurs and enjoying the peaceful music, psychedelic colours and restorative sleep of Erana’s Peace in the surrounding woods. But it was Plants versus Zombies that truly taught me something important about how I work, and how we need to work if we are to truly prevent the unthinkable from happening: Zombies breaking into our houses and eating our brains!

It all started when I had set up the (seemingly) perfect lawn, and then went to make coffee. I thought everything would be fine while I made my 6th brew for the day, but upon my return, I was horrified to see the green text of doom streaking across my screen telling me “THE ZOMBIES ATE YOUR BRAINS!”. What went wrong? Over the next weeks I played and observed what was happening as I faced greater challenges and more frequent Zombie onslaughts. Armed with knowledge and a somewhat emptier skull, I stumbled across some important strategies to help manage not only our pea-shooting, corn-cob hurling, spore dispersing plants, but also, our forums and communities, newsrooms and blogs.


There are many ways to tend a lawn, and the only one that is right, is the one that works best for you. But to know what is right you need to know your resources. Team members, community members, multipliers, evangelists, as well as which environments they work best under. Some can’t be coaxed out of a swimming pool no matter how many chorus lines dance past them. Others seem to do nothing until a bobsled runs over them and they show their true value. A peashooter may do a lot of work, but may be completely ineffectual against the giant dwarf-carrying zombie flattening your landscape with an uprooted telegraph pole. You may need two or more plants well placed to weaken him sufficiently that your lawn (and brains) remain intact. Communities don’t happen in silos, even if the actual web space itself might be one. Remember, there are plants in your inventory that may not yet be in your greenhouse. If your community is suffering from a creeping rot, you may need to Ctrl-R it back and try out some new weed.


You need to have an idea of who and what may represent the zombies in your community. It could be a corporate disease such as “chronic disinterest”, it could be the sands of time, or simply people who enjoy pa”troll”ing your site. It could also be a single executive hellbent on smashing your ideas to dust and your will to wake up in the morning to dread. When I think of communities however, the one thing that springs most readily to mind is old, decaying ownerless files (probably a good reason for files being an anagram of flies). In a knowledge management system, it is the debris that makes it so hard to find what’s really worth while, and which can dissuade people from using your community at all. But this is precisely where encouraging and enabling your environment to identify and quarantine zombies can transform that knowledge seeker’s purgatory into a gamified Youtopia.


Putting some initial thought into the overall design of your plot can go a long way towards sustainable success. It is worth investing time into developing strategies of what you need first and how much time you have before you really need to start defending what you’ve built. First priority is ensuring you have enough energy (resources, budget, etc.), then you need to think about how you are going to defend your resources, because they are the first things to get eaten before zombies get to your brains. Of course time is ever of the essence, and the best plans may not come to fruition, so we have to design, mindful of the limitations that time and impending waves of merciless and inarticulate zombies may impose upon us. Often a project or a community needs to be kicked off quickly, because endless rounds of discussions and over-engineering may lead to an exceptional design, but no actual community to help you (note sinister munching sound emanating from the kitchen). Many startups follow the fail early and fast method, but actually, it really is an 80:20 model again. A quick tally of your resources, projected time before zombies notice you’re home, and enough energy for the first line of peashooters and you’re on your way to carving out some quality strategic design time, whilst already living the better homes and gardens dream.


Don’t rely on some higher power saving you. Lawn Mowers and Pool Cleaners may work once, but the next zombie to cross that threshold will be munching of brain jerky.

No matter how well constructed your community, if you are not there to tend and defend your homestead, sooner or later, Zombies WILL be filling their rotting innards with grey goodness. It is not a question of if, it is a question only of when. It may not be until the 4th wave, or the 5th, but sooner or later your walnuts will be gnawed through, your peashooters will become a side-dish, and your brains will become the main meal. An untended community seldom runs itself. Either content becomes old, irrelevant, or simply stops in its tracks or trolls take over and start turning your community into something it was never meant to be. All successful communities will need to be tended. Some communities are of course so well developed that they become self-evolving and self-moderating, in these cases you can lay back, sipping smugly on an expensive and sugary beverage of your choice, whilst listening to the latest Indie Rock album, secure in the knowledge that you are surrounded by the dogs of spore. But until then, be vigilant, be awake, be bold and be ready for the ghoulish terror of a shambling doom…

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