Zombie Scrum – how scary is it?

It’s Halloween, a celebration in which the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead become blurred. Scary movies with zombies may come to mind, but have you ever heard about Zombie Scrum? To find out how scary Zombie Scrum really is, I interviewed two of the authors of an upcoming book about Zombie Scrum: Christiaan Verwijs and Johannes Schartau.
31 October 2019
Saskia Vermeer-Ooms
Halloween Organize Agile

Imagine a scrum team running two week Sprints. They’ve implemented the roles and go through all the ceremonies. From a distance, everything looks perfect. But when you take a closer look, you find out they struggle to deliver a working product at the end of their Sprints. Sprint Reviews never involve their customers or real end users, so they don’t receive frequent feedback on what they are making. A team spirit seems to be missing in the team as no one reacts to either success or failure. There is no drive for continuous improvement, so things never change and they are stuck in their miserable situation. If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, you might be suffering from Zombie Scrum.

About 3 years ago, Christiaan and Johannes first wrote about Zombie Scrum in this blog postBarry Overeem and Christiaan Verwijs from The Liberators, together with Johannes Schartau from Holisticon, are currently in the process of writing a book about Zombie Scrum. I talked to Christiaan and Johannes to find out more.

Zombie Scrum Organize Agile

Art by Thea Schukken. Created for The Liberators

Could you give us some background information on why and how you came up with the term ‘Zombie Scrum’? 

“It started out as something we could offer to help people working in an agile environment. We saw so many teams trying out Scrum and from our own experience we know that it is difficult to make it work. We kept seeing people being trapped in lifeless systems. It looked like something from a scary movie and we started using the name ‘Zombie Scrum systems’.“ Johannes explains. “Basically,  it comes down to people brainlessly following some principles, without actually understanding the essence of why they are doing what they are doing. Working with Scrum should be a lively process, we saw a lot of opposite examples of that unfortunately. “ 

What are the main characteristics of a team that is suffering from Zombie Scrum?

Christiaan reiterates that it’s about teams focusing mainly on the process and the mechanics of Scrum, without understanding the purpose behind it. “It’s easy to work on the process, without having frequent interaction with your customers and focusing on delivering value for them continuously. 

If you look from a distance it sure looks like Scrum, but if you look closer you see that the team lacks a beating heart. This is not only a disadvantage for the customer but also sucks for the people within the team. “ 

Was there something that triggered the need to start identifying the symptoms of Zombie Scrum? 

Johannes goes back 4 or 5 years, when conference talks and books were mostly focused on the mechanics of Scrum. “No one was really addressing the fact that making Scrum work for your team is difficult. You only heard the success stories and not the reality that you can also fail at it. From personal experience, we know how painful and difficult it can be, but we also know how Scrum can help you and your team build good stuff and create a fun environment while doing that. 

When we started naming it Zombie Scrum, we received a lot of enthusiasm from the community, it gave us the reassurance that there were more teams out there struggling to make it work. We wanted to make it transparent that by making small changes at a time it’s possible to recover from Zombie Scrum and move into more Healthy Scrum. “ 

What has happened since you started naming it Zombie Scrum? Do you think the situation has improved or gotten worse?

Christiaan laughs, “Since then, fortunately, a lot of people are more aware that it’s not just about the mechanics and going through the motions of the framework. There is more awareness, and we are hoping we also contributed to this. With our Zombie Scrum Symptoms Checker, we are currently gathering a lot of data from scrum teams, but we cannot conclude yet if the situation is improving or not. “ 

“It had a dramatic effect when we started naming it. “, Johannes adds.

“People understand the metaphor, which helps them recognize the symptoms of the narrative. Once teams are able to acknowledge the fact that they have symptoms of Zombie Scrum, they are more likely to take first steps in finding improvements. “ 

Together with Barry Overeem, you both are now in the process of writing a book about Zombie Scrum. Can you give us some insights of your book coming up next year? 

Johannes explains that the book ‘Zombie Scrum – how to survive the impending apocalypse’ will be part of the bigger ecosystem of interventions they are working on, like the Zombie Scrum Resistance website and the Symptoms checker survey. “With the book, we hope to reach a wider audience and therefore help more teams in finding the steps to resist doing Zombie Scrum. In the book readers will find all the interventions that we can think of. It will be easy to read with a lot of funny illustrations. “ 

This is actually the first time Barry, Christiaan and Johannes are collaborating in writing a book. They are still figuring out how to do it effectively and with an agile approach. They have agreed with the publisher Addison-Wesley that they can release each chapter individually so that they can get early feedback on it and improve on each part before the final submission date. They will also be publishing some parts of the book on the website, so readers won’t have to wait till the final publishing date (somewhere in Q3/Q4 of 2020).

You mentioned the survey that you are using to gather data. What are the results so far? Are you noticing any patterns? Anything that stands out?

Christiaan immediately grabs for the latest results. “We launched the first version of the Zombie Scrum Symptom checker in September this year, we have already had responses from 1000 teams. Of course, we still need to take the time to dive into the data, but we can already mention a few of the patterns that are emerging. For example, if you look at the responses with regard to teams working with their customers, about 60% of the teams rarely or never see their users or customers. It must be tough working in those teams where you never meet the people who you are building for. 

While the goal of Scrum is to deliver value continuously, we see from the data that 60% of the teams say they don’t have something valuable to ship after each Sprint, they basically have to wait for months to receive feedback on their product or service. What is surprising is that 43% of the teams say that Scrum is not effective for them. “

So why do you think they are still using Scrum if they feel it’s not effective for them? 

Johannes shouts out: “Because someone told them to do so!”

Zobmbie Scrum Apocalypse Organize

Art by Thea Schukken. Created for The Liberators

As an incentive for filling in the survey, teams will receive a personal feedback report on how they are doing on the Zombie Scrum vs Healthy Scrum scale. The score they receive is however, relative to the data entered by the teams.  

Is there anything you can say about the quality of the data? Aren’t you afraid that only teams who are self aware will fill in the survey? 

“Good question, I actually don’t know if we have a good representation of teams. “ says Christiaan. ”Maybe teams that really need help, but do not self reflect will not fill in the symptoms checker. We do however see that teams who are struggling are filling in the survey and asking for suggestions on how to improve. “ 

You are also big fans of using Liberating Structures, can you give one of your favorite examples of using LS as an antidote to Zombie Scrum?

Christiaan immediately mentions the structure ‘What I need from you’. “It’s a really powerful structure to clarify what you need from each other. If you are a scrum team you need to understand and agree what you need from each other in the different roles. You can do it multiple times and even involve management, support and customers in the process.” 

Johannes adds that self-organization is an important part of a healthy scrum team. “Liberating Structures are used to support self-organization within the teams. Teams need to learn to specifically ask what they need instead of waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This way they can improve their working strategy together and most importantly take ownership of it. “

If you look back on the experiences you have had with teams that are suffering from Zombie Scrum, what scares you the most? 

Johannes starts looking scared and says: “The intense meaninglessness that teams experience, while at the same time being too busy and overloaded with work. It chills me to the bone and it’s a waste of people’s lives. “ 

Christiaan adds: “I am worried about teams that never get to talk to real users. They keep saying we are talking to stakeholders. They may have an internal Product Owner, but never get a chance to talk to the users themselves. Very scary! ” 

What do you both hope for the future, will the Scrum community ever be Zombie free?

Johannes gives a big shout: “No!”, but then adds: “We hope that people will be able to recognize the symptoms much sooner. When Zombie Scrum becomes an established term, more teams will be able to recognize it and understand that there is a cure for it. “

Christiaan hopes that people will stop blaming Scrum when it’s not working for them, but understand that they are actually suffering from Zombie Scrum. He adds that what they are doing now will add to the ecosystem of interventions for improving teams. “With the book we want to give teams something tangible. It will not be a theoretical book, but a very practical one containing survival strategies. We will describe easy things to try which will hopefully help teams rediscover the fun part. “

I’ve heard that movie zombies can only be killed by a headshot, do you think this also applies to Scrum Zombies?

“We are not eradicating the Zombies themselves. We see ourselves as scientists instead of the military people with shotguns as in the movies. We believe we can find possible treatments to Zombie Scrum. The people who are infected don’t have to be killed, but we want to show the world that they can recover from it. ” says Johannes.

Christiaan adds: “In the end, it’s not about blaming the teams, but recognizing the symptoms and finding ways to improve. “ 

If teams find themselves stuck in Zombie Scrum now and can’t wait for the book to come out, what would be your suggestion as a first small step?

Christiaan says an important first step is to make sure there is interaction with the users. “Teams can start by inviting just one user to their Sprint Review. Have something prepared especially for this user so that they perceive adding value to the event and are able to give useful feedback to the team. “ 

“Basically, you should always look for ways to get results that help the team inspect the progress faster. “ says Johannes, “Start small and continue from there. “

Art by Thea Schukken. Created for The Liberators


As the interview wraps up, Johannes gives some final remarks to consider: “One thing I want to emphasize is that when you have symptoms of Zombie Scrum, it’s definitely not a hopeless case and there are ways out of it. Most of the times it’s actually pretty easy. What we are going for in the book is to show you that there are small steps you can take towards recovery and as you accumulate these small steps, it will result in bigger changes. 

When someone says: You are doing Zombie Scrum, there should always be a second part of the sentence saying: and there’s a cure for it. “

Christiaan suggests: “Hey, we should put that on t-shirts!”

A big ‘thank you’ to Christiaan and Johannes for taking the time and having a chat with me, though I almost did not survive this interview as Scrum Zombies were lurking around…


Do you recognize any symptoms of Zombie Scrum in your own environment? Let us know and maybe we can bring you back to life again.

Saskia Vermeer-Ooms

Agile Coach