How Zombie Scrum Kills Motivation

Johannes Schartau
Feb 17, 2017 · 4 min read

One of the most striking symptoms of Zombie Scrum is the general lack of motivation. There’s no motivation to succeed and — even worse — there’s not even enough motivation for a full-scale riot! Getting stuck in mediocrity is often more dangerous than honest failure.

But how does Zombie Scrum do it? What’s the secret to killing motivation efficiently, making sure your employees don’t make any use of their brain at all?

One way of looking at this is through the lens of the factors outlined in Daniel Pink’s book on motivation “Drive”. He says motivation comes down to three main factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Let’s look at all three of them and see how they’re affected in a Zombie Scrum environment.


It’s highly motivating if you can do your own thing. That doesn’t mean you have to do it alone, often the opposite. Most great things come into being through the interaction of several individuals. But while you do it you feel like your choices are not dictated by anyone else. You have autonomy to choose what’s best.

In the Zombie Scrum organizations we studied autonomy on the team level is actively worked against. You’re not there to make a choice, you’re there to do what someone else tells you. The business unit knows what you need to deliver. The architect and your team lead tell you how you’re going to deliver it. You’re not responsible for getting a high-quality product to a real customer. You ship your code all the way to Quality Assurance down the hall. They decide whether you meet the specified criteria.

It’s sad, but this is the way it is. Your autonomy is actively being cut down so you don’t deviate from the norm.


Deeply getting into a subject and becoming great at it is motivating. When you get the feeling that you’re living for something and you want to get better every day no one needs to force you to put in extra effort. It simply flows naturally and provides a feeling of joy instead of exhaustion.

You probably won’t be so lucky in a Zombie Scrum environment. There’s a specific skill set you’ve been hired for and a narrow margin of responsibility you’re given. The application you’re working on is probably far from cutting edge and the real coding you’re enjoying is probably being done in your spare time. What a shame! Imagine being able to leverage new technology to deliver great products and become a stellar coder while you do it. But in organizations suffering from Zombie Scrum, there is no urge to learn new things or improve your skills.


The last piece of the motivational puzzle is purpose. It’s the feeling of working on something meaningful, of contributing to some higher cause.

Purpose, the reason why something is being done, is usually far removed from Zombie Scrum teams. It gets lost somewhere in the process of trying to deliver gigantic projects. At least if it was ever there in the first place! The reason to start developing a product is more often connected to the HiPPO: the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. “The CEO wants it done!” How’s that for a compelling product vision?

It’s not much fun to develop something because it says so in a written specification. Real interaction with a customer, seeing their reactions, getting feedback from the market, making some serious money, making a difference in the world: those are reasons to get motivated and start contributing to a real purpose.

What To Do

To see a big change in motivation you’re going to need a big change in the organization. This is tough and can take a long time. Nonetheless, here are three small things you can try right away to make things just a little better:

  1. Start digging for purpose. Work your way up the chain to find out where the initial idea for the product you’re developing came from. Maybe that person is interested in spending some time with your team to come up with a short and powerful statement that captures the purpose;
  2. Make motivation the theme for your next Retrospective. Let team members rate the three motivational factors outlined above on a scale from 1 to 10. Spend some time as a group to make sense of the results. You can then ask what it would take to raise that number for each factor just a little and what the team can actively do to improve the situation;
  3. Use the Moving Motivators exercise from Management 3.0 to find out more about individual motivating factors and how organizational change affects them. You can also use them as a whole team at the same time!

Personal Motivation

The Zombie Scrum virus can be vicious! Don’t let it take your personal motivation as well. You can make a real difference, even if it’s just a small one. We’re here to help!

Diagnose Your Scrum Team

Are you curious to learn if your organization and team are infected by Zombie Scrum? Why don’t you give the Zombie Scrum Symptoms Checker a try? It’s completely free and anonymous and offers your team a profile that helps you identify the areas for improvement.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Johannes Schartau

Written by

Johannes is co-founder of the Zombie Scrum Resistance and co-author of the upcoming Zombie Scrum Survival Guide. He works for Holisticon in Hamburg, Germany.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

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