Zombie Scrum

Photo of Sohrab Salimi
Sohrab Salimi
5 min. reading time

Scrum becomes Zombie Scrum in an organization when the original ideas and guidelines are not consistently implemented and lived. The result:

The actually powerful, inspiring and lively framework cannot work and develop properly, dies and thus does not bring any benefits to your company. Instead, it is dragged along like a zombie (= undead robbed of its soul), "vegetates" and, in the worst case, "infects" the working atmosphere.

Symptoms of Zombie Scrum

You can recognize companies infected with Zombie Scrum by the following symptoms:

  • Skepticism, frustration and displeasure prevail at work instead of joy and inspiration.
  • Scrum Masters and Product Owners are seen as prescriptive and controlling team leaders instead of supportive facilitators. They rarely if ever participate in Sprint Review or Sprint Planning.
  • The participation in Daily Meetings fluctuates, the meetings are postponed or take place only irregularly.
  • Other Scrum events such as Sprint Planning and Review are repeatedly cancelled, not scheduled at all, or unnecessarily drawn out without timeboxes.
  • Scrum team members don't dare to openly admit mistakes or suggest improvements.
  • The product backlog is not consistently maintained and updated.
  • Tasks to be completed pile up in the Scrum Team that are not scheduled in the Sprint.
  • Important information is not (fully) shared.
  • Key stakeholders send change requests only by email to individual members of the Scrum Team instead of participating personally in the Sprint Review.
  • The focus on customer and stakeholder requests is missing. Instead, things are developed according to the ideas of individual leaders.
  • The Scrum team does not deliver fully integrated product increments. For example, it interprets the definition of finished / working software very generously or does not even orient itself to such a definition.
  • Obstacles within the Scrum Teams and the organization are not resolved and there is hardly any learning taking place.
  • There is virtually no emotional reaction in the Scrum team to a failed or successful sprint.
  • Items that were not completed in the Sprint are deferred to subsequent Sprints as a matter of course. Or the length of the sprint is adjusted as desired.
  • There is no apparent ambition to improve the situation.

What factors encourage the development of Zombie Scrum?

If a company unknowingly develops Zombie Scrum, it is usually not so much due to individuals, but more to deeply rooted mechanisms in the system that clash with Agile values. Here are some examples:

  • Giving up control and trust are hard: If previous decision makers have a hard time letting teams work on their own responsibility, self-management / self-organization and thus quick response cannot take place properly. Customer relationships that are not based on trust also hinder self-managing teams in their continuous improvement. This is especially the case when strict (sometimes outdated) contract specifications are simply to be worked through.
  • Change is difficult: Especially in very traditional companies, the introduction of new ways of working is often seen as threatening. This leads to slow or half-hearted implementation.
  • Transparency is difficult**: In hierarchical companies, it can be a hurdle to really live transparency and open communication in all directions.
  • There is no healthy error culture: Mistakes are not seen as an opportunity for rapid improvement, but as something to be avoided and covered up.
  • Scrum is not introduced properly and only in a patchy manner: If the pillars and benefits of the Scrum framework are not clear to all employees, there is often a lack of will to embrace the change.
  • The company does not work completely according to Scrum: If, for example, only the Development Team works with the Scrum Framework, there is often a lack of understanding and support in the rest of the organization. This makes collaborative processes within the company particularly cumbersome - as do dependencies on other teams or management.
  • Focus on the desired outcome is missing: If Scrum is only introduced because "everyone is doing it right now," perhaps a different solution would have been more appropriate for the challenges at hand.
  • Goals, sense of purpose and value understanding are missing: Without shared goals and a mindset that is aligned with value to the customer (value-driven), there is a lack of meaning, urgency and commitment in the work. Scrum cannot thrive in such a work context.

How can you avoid or cure zombie Scrum in your Scrum team?

You can recognize a company that works with the Scrum framework in a healthy and consistent way ("healthy Scrum") by the prevailing liveness. You can promote this, for example, in the following points to avoid or cure Zombie Scrum:

  • Regular Reflection: Use retrospectives with your Scrum team - not only to keep addressing old problems, but also to dream big and encourage Continuous Improvement.
  • Regulate Feedback Culture: There should be an open communication culture where everyone can dare to openly address mistakes, learnings and improvements.
  • Constant Exchange: Communication takes place not only within teams, but also with other teams, stakeholders, customers and the market. This does not promote mutual understanding and trust.
  • Talks about possible improvements to the situation: Instead of accepting a state of resignation, regular conversations about possible improvements should take place (possibly with external Scrum experts or Agile coaches). This promotes the willingness to move away from zombie Scrum to healthy Scrum.
  • Practiced self-organization of teams: The members of a healthy Scrum team organize and motivate themselves. There is no need for classical control "from above".
  • Fostering Sense and Commitment: You accomplish this, for example, by asking the team in Sprint Planning what impact they want to take in the next Sprint, what value they want to create for the client, etc. Then in Daily Scrum you look at what progress the team has already made towards their Impact goals and Sprint Goal.
  • Sense of Healthy Urgency: Does your team tend to extend sprints? If so, it may help to shorten a 3- or 4-week sprint to 2 weeks. This promotes focus and commitment.
  • Consistent Scrum adoption from the start: It can be worthwhile to either have one or more members of your team trained in the Scrum framework and trained in roles such as Scrum Master or Product Owner. Or your company can have external experts support you in the introduction of Scrum. This ensures that Scrum is introduced consistently and correctly from the beginning and that the roles are lived in a conducive manner.

More about Zombie Scrum

If you want to learn more about Zombie Scrum using practical examples, it is worth taking a look at the book "Zombie Scrum Survival Guide" by Christiaan Verwijs, Johannes Schartau and Barry Overeem (published 11/2020).

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