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Scrum of the Living Dead: Are You Truly Agile?

Is the spirit of Scrum alive and well in your team, or are you simply going through the motions?

Are You Practicing Zombified Scrum? | OpenView Labs

Agile methodologies have become widely adopted in the tech industry for many years now. And in recent years, agile practices have even grown strongly beyond the confines of software engineering teams — just try a quick search for “agile marketing,” “agile sales,” etc. and see how much comes up. But talking the agile talk and walking the walk are two very different things, and many teams casually adopting agile processes may not be seeing the impact they want.

Why Practicing Living, Breathing Agile is Hard to Do — And Even Harder to Sustain

As an organization, OpenView has embraced one of the most popular agile practices — the Scrum methodology, co-invented by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber — since 2007. That means we’ve been implementing, iterating, and improving our approach to Scrum for seven years. But while we’ve certainly gained experience and insight during that time, when you follow a process (or “the rituals”, in Scrum terms) for many years you also run the risk of it becoming just another accepted part of organizational behavior — or worse, an unquestioned ritual that does not carry any real significance.

This is a very real possibility because Scrum is often defined by its “quaint” terminologies — sprints, sprint backlogs, stand-up meetings, retrospectives, etc. It is easy for people to declare that they practice Scrum correctly because they go through these rituals, but what they lose sight of is that the rituals are really just a framework for the more essential, transformational effects that true Scrum teams experience.

The Zombie Mentality

When teams simply go through the motions of practicing Scrum, they fail to ask themselves what these meetings and activities really mean, and fail to evaluate how they organize their teams and their priorities.

And when that happens, the team may as well not bother. In fact, when Scrum becomes just an accepted set of rules that team members follow mindlessly like zombies, it actually becomes an impediment to very things it is meant to help the team realize: self-organization, iterative development, and continuous self-improvement.

How Can Teams Tell if They’ve Joined the Ranks of the Walking Scrum Dead?

The bad news is, while it may be obvious to an outsider, it is often difficult for teams to recognize when they’ve lost the spark, themselves. That said, there are two warning signs you can look out for to make sure your team doesn’t fall prey to zombified Scrum.

Warning Sign #1: Decline of Self-Organization

Self-organization is one of the key elements of Scrum’s philosophy on teamwork. In order for a team to operate as efficiently and productively as possible the team needs to be able to determine its own work schedule and its own internal allocation of resources, and each team member needs to be empowered to be actively involved in those decisions.

Of course, self-organizing teams do not exist easily in the corporate world because there is always a tendency for a hierarchical structure. In Scrum organizations that have been infected (or actually, re-infected) with this mentality, team members gradually abandon self-organization, self-empowerment, and give in to their “betters.” That essential self-empowering event — the sprint planning meeting — then quickly becomes a unilaterally directed allocation of resources by the team leader (whether a Scrum Master or Product Owner).

Once individual team members begin to feel less empowered that is a major warning sign you are on the path toward zombified Scrum.

Warning Sign #2: Abandoning the Estimation Process

Another key practice that tends to lose significance in teams that succumb to the forces of habit is the estimation (sizing) process. Doing estimation is never easy, but it is also extremely susceptible to group think and intellectual laziness.

When teams start to have unanimity on the vast number of stories, or when members come to the planning meeting with pre-sized stories, they are imposing their individual views on the team and reinforcing the lack of transparency and individualism on the culture. Ultimately, their work will suffer, because they miss out on leveraging their team members’ perspectives, solutions, and experience in evaluating and planning for these stories.

The Real Definition of Agile

Teams often think of having really rapid iterations and having extreme flexibility as the signs that they are “agile.” However, I would urge them to consider whether they are really self-organized, and whether their planning and estimating process is as rigorous and collaborative as it should be. Those are the key tenets of Scrum that will help them sustain their flexibility, continually improve, and be much more effective.


Is your team a group of Scrum Zombies? Or is the spirit of Scrum still alive in your organization?