The Rise Of Zombie Scrum

Symptoms of Zombie Scrum

The problem with zombies is that they appear to be human in that dark alley, until you get a bit closer. That’s when you notice that they are not really alive. Zombie Scrum is similar, in that it appears to be Scrum on the surface. Except there’s no beating heart.

Symptom #3: No emotional response to success or failure

The lack of contact with the outside world often leads to this symptom, but it can also manifest itself independently of the other symptoms. Like a lifeless body, Zombie Scrum teams show no response to a failed or successful Sprint. Where other teams curse or rejoice, they simply keep their empty stare of numb resignation. Team morale is very low. Items from the Sprint Backlog get carried over to the next Sprint without question. Because why not? There’s always a next Sprint and the iterations are artificial anyway! Since items on the Sprint Backlog are not tied to any specific Sprint goal they can be completed whenever the team feels like it. And thus continues the aimless trudge through a barren wasteland of software development. No signposts, no direction, no alignment. Walking at a snail’s pace into the sunset without showing any emotions.

Symptom #4: No drive to improve

In “The Walking Dead”, zombies are the epitome of brainlessness, moving along because that’s what they always did. This lifeless procession is accompanied by a moody ambience of moans and clacking teeth. Although a bit less dramatic, Zombie Scrum really isn’t all that different. Like their movie counterparts, teams go through the motions of Scrum. Yes there are sprints (although the results are limited, see symptoms #1, #2 and #3) and the Scrum events do take place. But there’s no joy, and certainly no drive for improvement (symptom #4). And nobody really seems to care.

Causes of Zombie Scrum

Scrum is big, there’s no doubt about that. But the increasing population of Scrum Teams is also giving rise to an equal increase in the incidence of Zombie Scrum. And although they won’t chomp of your arm, take a bite out of the intern or start gnawing at the Scrum Master any time soon, we want for nothing more than to help these teams experience what Scrum is actually like. But before identifying remedies and antidotes, we need to know more about how Scrum devolves into Zombie Scrum. We’ve identified a few:

Cause #1: A bit too homegrown, or ‘Cargo Cult Scrum’

Homegrown Scrum is great. That is; teams and organisations that start working with Scrum without the help of (expensive) external trainers and coaches. Some of the best Scrum Teams started out like this.

Cause #2: No urgency

We often witness a lack of urgency in Scrum Teams, usually caused by a lack of urgency in the rest of the organization. One of the potential underlying causes is that there’s no real understanding of value. If working software is the beating heart of Scrum, then value is its lifeblood.

Cause #3: Competing Values

We have already alluded to this in the previous points, but Zombie Scrum is essentially the result of a systemic mismatch with Agile values. We know that the business lingo is strong with this one, but the point we’re trying to make is that Healthy Scrum easily decays into Zombie Scrum when people in the organisation hold beliefs about software development that collide with what drives Agile software development. One of the difficulties here is that these beliefs are rarely openly discussed. They are deeply-held, often subconsciously, and shared as part of the organisation’s culture. Considering the foginess surrounding this topic, and to summarize what we’ve written before, we thought it best to give you some examples:

Treating Zombie Scrum

So suppose you’re dealing with an infestation of Zombie Scrum. How do you deal with this? After countless experiments, we have come up with a few potential antidotes that might help:

Treatment #1: Become a Zombie-whisperer

You might not expect much out of a bunch of zombies, but simply talking to them may work wonders. Zombie Scrum Teams are rarely happy with their predicament. So a good start is to talk about their situation, and identify potential causes and solutions. One way to identify causes is by asking the opposite question; ‘How can we make the team even more Zombi-fied?’. It also helps to talk about values and beliefs, and (when necessary) educate on the purposes of Scrum and the underlying values. A game like ‘Circles & Soup’ can help teams regain a sense of control, by focussing on what they can change rather than what they can’t.

Treatment #2: Introduce Healthy Scrum into the population

Another way to combat Zombie Scrum is by introducing people into the population that can show and explain how Healthy Scrum works, and communicate the right values. Teams and organisations suffering from Zombie Scrum often feel that things aren’t working as well as they should, but unaware as to what’s causing this. There are many ways to do this. Take teams and management on a Scrum-safari in other companies, and show them how Scrum works there. Or hire employees with Scrum-experience that can show how things are done. It can also help to bring in Agile coaches to help teams and management understand Scrum better, as long as their focus remains on helping the organisation take care of things themselves as soon as possible.

Treatment #3: Shake things up (don’t continue the stumble)

You won’t cure Zombie Scrum by playing to the regular rules. Your intervention will most likely depend on a wide variety of tools, similar to the assortment of tools found in an abandoned farmhouse that you can use to fight zombies. Since the causes of Zombie Scrum can be manifold, you might want to try several approaches to see which lead to success.

  • Focus the Sprint Planning on answering the question what type of impact the team would like to achieve within the upcoming Sprint.
  • Start the Daily Scrum by reviewing the Sprint Goal and asking what achievements the team has made towards reaching that goal.
  • Use the roadmap to provide context for the insights from the Review meeting. And for heaven’s sake, invite some real customers or stakeholders!
  • Use the Retrospective not to drag out the same old problems but to dream big. A transformational approach might be better suited than an incremental one.

Treatment #4: Involve the broader Scrum Community

You are not alone in your fight against Zombie Scrum. With the ever increasing adoption of Scrum, there is also an increasingly large community. Benefit from the community by asking help from people with more experience. Visit local Agile or Scrum Meetups, use forums (like the one at Scrum.org) or Facebook to ask for help or invite fellow Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches to drop by. Or send an email to bloggers like us; we’re happy to help!

Zombie Scrum Resistance

Help us fight Scrum that looks like Scrum on the surface, but lacks a beating heart. We offer tools for first-aid and treatment, and investigate causes.

Christiaan Verwijs

Written by

I aim to liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing and ineffective ways of organizing work. Professional Scrum Trainer & Steward @ Scrum.org

Zombie Scrum Resistance

Help us fight Scrum that looks like Scrum on the surface, but lacks a beating heart. We offer tools for first-aid and treatment, and investigate causes.