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Avoiding the pitfalls of Zombie Scrum

Zombie Scrum is just what it sounds like: It's Scrum, but it feels dead. No heartbeat. It's a great metaphor which summarises an issue that so many companies are facing: Scrum has been newly rolled out, and everybody has been told to “be empowered.” Yet, output is not going up, it's going down. Motivation is not increasing, instead people are leaving. What went wrong?

Don't start off on the wrong foot

In my experience, one of the hardest situations to deal with is when you are in an environment where everybody is willing to succeed, you have talent, but yet it is just not working. Teams are complex social systems, just like the companies they operate within. So if all the ingredients are there, but you still see no effect, there are some things you might consider:

1. It all starts with 'Why?'

When starting to introduce new ways of working, this means you will have to abandon the old ways of working. Needless to say, this will be difficult for some of your colleagues. The old way of working has gotten you to this far - why is it not enough anymore? This is one of the most important aspects to keep an eye on: People need the why. Any change you propose, any element you introduce - Be prepared to give your honest explanation for 'why people should engage.

2. Be careful with 'middle ground'

As important as the 'Why' might be, there's also a simple truth: Some methods just work well. That's why a lot of people are using them. Take "Objectives and Key Results" (OKRs) as one example for a method which is widely used and popular. There are two extreme bookends: You can use it without any adaptations. People might think you are too theoretical. You can keep your old process and just call it OKR from now on. The effect will be zero. Once you understood the 'Why', make sure you make a real step. Don't stay too close to your established ways of working. Don't just rename roles. Don't let the manager run the retro. Only a bold step towards change will have a reak effect.

3. Build teams that aren’t afraid to fail

Even if you want change and you know why, you can still fail. In fact, if you are setting ambitious goals and trying new things, whether ways of working or new products, failure is certain at some point. If you are transitioning from a traditional org culture, this might be frustrating not only to you, but also to your team, and in turn to your manager. This is where a culture that allows mistakes to happen, that allows people to be vulnerable and to admit that things are not going according to plan will excel. This in itself is a major cultural shift that will take time - start by resetting expectations with employees and management. Prove to your team that failure is not something to be shamed or punished, but an opportunity to learn. Help teams call out the things that do not work as planned. Do, inspect, adapt, discuss.

4. Offer leadership and extend leadership where needed

In open, agile cultures, everybody can be a leader by offering support to colleagues, by listening.

5. Have a healthy patience, reward teams that perform

No change will happen overnight. Still, there is a balance to strike. Any company or organisation will have to deliver results in the end. This is not only healthy, but based on my experience, being able to deliver is also what will keep talent on board. If you want change, be prepared that it is bumpy - but never forget about your goals. Your goal is not to follow a process, your goal is to get results. Companies have a tendency of focusing on those teams and topics that fail - and reward them for fixing the problem they caused in the first place. Find those people, individuals and teams, that deliver without being noisy and reward them.

In short, if you are a manager, a developer, a team member - no matter which role you have, you can help to return your working models from the dead. Work with a strong Why and don't forget about the essence of the methods you're using. Give people support, leadership, and cover where they need. And last but not least, be patient, but also focus on those people who know how to get stuff done - you are not a hero if you fixed something you broke yourself.


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