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Zombie Scrum First Aid

December 18, 2023

In our book — the Zombie Scrum Survival Guide — we dive deep into what causes Zombie Scrum, something that looks like Scrum from a distance but lacks a beating heart. We also offer 40+ experiments to recover from Zombie Scrum. 

Zombie Scrum is on the rise! What may look like Scrum from a distance often turns out to be anything, but when you take a closer look. Although teams go through the motions of Scrum, Sprints don’t result in valuable outcomes, customers are not involved, teams have little autonomy, and nobody is doing anything to improve.

The first response to Zombie Scrum might be to panic, run around, and hide below your desk. That doesn’t usually work. So, for our book, the Zombie Scrum Survival Guide, we created a simple poster that tells you exactly what to do in clear and simple language.

In this post, we share the illustration and offer tips & tricks on how to start improving.

A poster that captures the eight recommendations. You can download a high-resolution version of the poster here

1️. Take responsibility 👊 

You haven’t caused this situation, but nothing will change unless people like you step up. Don’t blame or hide behind others. Model responsible behavior and investigate how you might inadvertently contribute to Zombie Scrum yourself. 

In the article “The 11th Essential Success Factor To Resolve Zombie Scrum”, I explain why brutally honest and critical self-reflection is important. It’s often easy to point at others and ask them to change. But what if your contribution isn’t helpful? What if your mindset, attitude, and behavior need to change? To discover this, you need self-reflection and/or someone else who holds up the mirror. It is important to acknowledge that you can’t change others; you can change yourself.

2️. Assess the situation 🔎 

Find out as much as you can about what is going on. What problems do you see? How do they manifest? Do you have data to back up what you’re saying? Why should others care? If you can’t answer these questions, you will fight alone. 

A perfect way to assess the situation is to try Columinity with your team. It’s a tool that puts teams in a position to drive change. Diagnose your team with a scientifically validated survey, inspect the results, and improve with our evidence-based feedback! 

3️. Create awareness 🗣 

Make others aware of what is happening inside and outside your team. They may not have realized it yet. Create urgency and show what is lost to your team and the organization because of the problems caused by Zombie Scrum.

Consider trying the workshop ‘Measure And Improve How Your Environment Supports Your Team.’ We designed this workshop with three overlapping goals. The first is to examine how your work environment shapes your individual and team behavior. The second is to turn this into a (simple) metric to track and see if you’re heading in the right direction. And finally, our goal with this workshop is to involve those in your environment who can change it (like management).

Give this workshop a try, and let us know the results.

Download the workshop here. It allows you to measure how your work environment influences your effectiveness as a team and how to involve management in improving it.

4️. Find other survivors 🧐 

Once you have created awareness, you will find others in your organization who have started to see, too. Form groups and build networks to increase your reach and your ability to recover.

Try the workshop ‘Find Support In The Social Networks Of Your Organization.’ Without support from their environment and management, it will be exceedingly hard for Scrum teams to be effective. Managers often have the power and the means to change the environment and take away those impediments. But if that support is lacking, morale decreases as teams discover they can’t do what Scrum teams do.

At the same time, many Scrum teams limit their improvements to what happens within their team and don’t actively use formal and informal networks to leverage the support available in their environment. So, we designed this do-it-yourself workshop to help your team do that and find much-needed support.

5️. Start small ♾️ 

Instead of immediately going for the “Big Ones,” start with the small and incremental changes you control. Recovering from Zombie Scrum is complex, so use short feedback cycles to adapt to the situation as it unfolds quickly.

Product Backlog refinement is a common activity for many Scrum teams. Somehow, refinement of improvements isn’t. This is surprising because improvements should be considered as “work” as well. Work that’s part of your Product- and Sprint Backlog. Improvements that are too large, vague, or abstract are difficult to implement. As a result, the team struggles to remove impediments and make necessary improvements. This impacts team morale and sets a negative spiral in motion. 

In the blog post “How To Refine Your Improvements Into Actionable Quick Tips,” we show you an alternative with actionable quick tips. Give it a try during your next Sprint Retrospective. Identify an improvement, and work together to make it as small, specific, and actionable as possible!

Trigger BIG change by starting small with ‘15% Solutions’. We call these “Quick Tips” in Columinity.

6️. Stay positive 😃 

Complaints, cynicism, and sarcasm don’t help anyone. It may even contribute to teams sliding further into Zombie Scrum. Instead, highlight what works well, where improvements occur, and what is possible when you work together. Use humor to lighten the mood, but not sugarcoat the truth.

Facilitate the next Sprint Retrospective with the Liberating Structure ‘Appreciative Interviews’. It helps identify enablers for success in less than one hour. By starting from what goes well — instead of what doesn’t — AI liberates spontaneous momentum and insights for positive change as “hidden” success stories are uncovered. It will spark peer-to-peer learning, generate constructive energy, and offer the participants valuable insights.

7️. Celebrate 🎉 

You won’t recover from Zombie Scrum overnight. It may take a while before you start noticing improvements. This is perfectly okay. No matter how small they are, celebrate them together when they happen to offset the eventual setbacks you will also face.

Organize a session with other teams, stakeholders, and supporters (managers, leaders, and coaches). Jointly, share, and celebrate successes. Consider using the Liberating Structure ‘UX Fishbowl’ to facilitate the session. It helps to create an environment where people can learn together and everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

A UX Fishbowl is in full swing.

8️. Find help 🆘 

Look for help outside of the boundaries of your organization. Join or start a regional Scrum meetup. Reach out to Scrum Masters who inspire you. Or join workshops or classes with people who face similar challenges. Consider joining The Liberators Network or one of our local user groups


What (else) has worked for you in preventing or fixing Zombie Scrum? Feel free to share them if you have any other ideas or experiences.

Aside from a deep exploration of what causes Zombie Scrum, our book contains over 40 other experiments (like this one) to try with your Scrum team. Each is geared towards a particular area where Zombie Scrum often pops up. If you’re looking for more experiments, or if these posts are helpful to you, please consider buying a copy.

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