What if the Scrum Master isn’t a Change Leader?

Barry Overeem


The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and great diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. All with the purpose of helping people understand the spirit of Scrum.

However, the role of a Scrum Master isn’t always fulfilled the way it was intended. In my previous blog posts I’ve described the most common misunderstood stances and the 8 preferred stances.

Originally my intention was to describe this Scrum Master as a change leader in this third and final article. This as a teaser for attending my presentation at the Agile Leadership Day on September 27th in Zurich. But by describing the Scrum Master as a change leader, there’s nothing left to tease you with.

Therefore this blog post will describe the opposite. What if the Scrum Master isn’t a change leader? What if she is mostly fulfilling the role according to the 8 misunderstood stances: Scribe, Secretary, Scrum Police, Hero, Team Boss, Admin, Chairman or the Coffee Clerk? What she isn’t aware/capable of causing the necessary changes in the organization so the Scrum Team can thrive?


Chances are you’ll end up with Zombie-Scrum!

At first sight, Zombie Scrum seems to be normal Scrum. But it lacks a beating heart. The Scrum teams do all the Scrum events but a potential releasable increment is rarely the result of a Sprint. The team also don’t have any intention to improve their situation. Actually nobody cares about this team. The stakeholders have forgotten the existence of this team long time ago.


The Symptoms of Zombie-Scrum


Symptom #1: No beating heart

Zombie Scrum Teams may be going through the Scrum-motions, but there is hardly any working software (or none at all). Completed functionality is often treated as a ‘nice-to-have’, and can be finished in any other sprint. The lack of a beating heart is also apparent in a very limited and unambitious definition of what ‘done’ means, and no drive to extend it. In healthy Scrum teams understand that having a continuous stream of ‘done’ software is not a nice-to-have, but an essential goal of Scrum. Zombie Scrum approaches this differently. Who cares about working software, gathering feedback and generating insights?


Symptom #2: No (desire for) contact with the outside world

Scrum zombies prefer to hide away from people and keep to their familiar surroundings. They neither care what’s upstream nor what’s downstream in the value chain. The product failed to meet customer expectations? I’m only here to code! Zombie Scrum teams see themselves as a cog in the wheel, unable and unwilling to change anything and have a real impact.


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!


Symptom #4: No drive to improve

In Zombie Scrum there’s no joy, and certainly no drive for improvement. And nobody really seems to care. And can you blame the team? The Product Owner is hardly ever present during the Sprint Review or the Sprint Planning. Teams are highly unstable, as members continuously get loaned out to other teams in need of their (specialised) skills. And there’s no actual Scrum Master present to help the team grow. Some of the bottlenecks may be real, while others may be imagined. But the bottom-line here is the lack of control a team experiences over their own success, and this easily translates into boring retrospectives, a lot of complaining (moaning). And certainly no desire to improve.


Recognize these symptoms? Be cautious. You might have Zombie-Scrum within your organization! The Scrum Master as a change leader should try to prevent Zombie-Scrum at all, but if she recognizes the symptoms, she should be able to offer the necessary treatment. Remember:


“A good Scrum Master helps a Scrum Team survive an organization’s culture. A great Scrum Master helps change the culture so Scrum Teams can thrive.” – Geoff Watts

Want to learn more about Zombie-Scrum? Check this website: zombiescrum.org

Want to learn more about “Healthy-Scrum”? On September 25/26 Ari Byland and I will provide a Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master training in Zurich. The ideal preparation for the Agile Leadership Day and my presentation! More information can be found on this page:

Professional Scrum Master Training with Barry Overeem, Zurich


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