Putting the “Why” back at the center of Agile practices

Agility, a success story?

In recent years, Scrum has become THE reference framework for software development and is even exported to many other fields. There are now millions of us certified by one organization or another, the number of attendees at “Agile Day” events is growing, and the amount of resources available such as guides, how-to’s and best practices, is simply enormous.

While this success represents an opportunity for Agile enthusiasts to celebrate, it is also a great opportunity for us to introspect on the state of Scrum in 2020.

Appearance of the Zombie Scrum

Many companies choose to lead an ‘agile transformation’ but this phenomenon is unfortunately accompanied by an increase in the number of agile transformations leading to organizations that suffer from Zombie Scrum.

From a distance, it looks like Scrum: the artifacts, the events and the recommended roles are present, but these organizations do not reach the potential promised by Scrum.

Indeed, the output of a sprint in these companies is rarely a deliverable increment with high added value for the business

Credits pour l’image: Thea Schukken – Beeld in Werking – pour Zombiescrum.org

Doctor, what are the symptoms?

Organizations suffering from Zombie Scrum usually have a combination of the following 4 symptoms:

#1 No heartbeat

A human being exhales after each breathing cycle. The heartbeat in Scrum is represented by the sprint cycle. At the end of each sprint, a deliverable increment is supposed to be produced. In Zombie Scrum, this is rarely the case, so the organization that is victimized is missing a pulse.

#2 No desire to engage with the outside world

Unlike apocalyptic zombie movies, the Zombie Scrum prefers to isolate itself from the outside world. The ways of thinking are like the organization, organized in silos. Your programmers are only there to code after all.

#3 No emotional responses to failures or successes

Organizations suffering from Zombie Scrum are totally indifferent to the output of a sprint. Not all the stories the team has committed to are finished? No matter, there is always the next sprint. PBIs are carried from sprint to sprint with complete indifference.

#4 No desire to improve

Your organization has long forgotten that certain teams exist. Scrum Masters and Product Owners are often absent and your team doesn’t understand the interest of the retrospective (it wastes their time and is useless).

If your organization has several of these symptoms on a recurring basis, it may be suffering from Zombie Scrum.

Answering the ‘why’, a cure for Zombie Scrum?

The appearance of the Zombie Scrum can be explained by different factors: homemade Scrum, cherry picking, company values that go against Agile values, a disconnection from reality and many others.

In this article, we propose a new way of reading this phenomenon: What if these “Zombie Scrum” organizations focus too much on the “what” and “how” of Scrum at the expense of its “why”?

Indeed, it seems that too often, organizations and teams have no idea why they adopted Scrum. You can hear phrases such as:

  • “We wouldn’t want to become the next Kodak or Nokia”
  • “I hear it will boost our productivity”
  • “Everyone else is doing it, so why not us?”

If these reasons answer the “why”, it is in a very superficial way and we have to look further if we want this why to make sens

Why Scrum ?

Scrum is a framework based on empiricism: we collect data through our daily experience and we use this data to make better decisions and be in line with reality. This notion of empiricism is reinforced and cemented in Scrum in its three pillars which are:

  • Transparency : We know what is going on.
  • Inspection: Work (and the manner of work) is inspected as it is performed.
  • Adaptation: You are able to adapt your trajectory as needed.

Let’s take the example of the Daily stand up and ask ourselves the question “Why the Daily?”.

It becomes obvious to understand the purpose of the Daily stand up in light of the 3 Scrum pillars: It is a Scrum Event that allows to promote the transparency within the development team on a daily basis and who encourages inspection (status of his work) and adaptation of the work of the team (risk and contingency management).

The benefits promised by Scrum such as a deliverable increment at the end of each sprint, the interaction with the customer, the ability to change and adapt, a reduced time to market, a predictive planning, a better Risk Management and others are obtained not because your company has well implemented the 3 roles, the 5 events and the 3 artifacts of Scrum but because these are the representation of the 3 Scrum pillars that allow an efficient empirical process.

Why is the “Why” crucial in your Agile transformation?

Simon Sinek, author of “Find your Why” and “The Infinite Game”, gave a very inspiring Ted Talk a few years ago on the importance of “why” in business. In this one, he presents his Golden Circle and argues that most companies present themselves too often through their “what” (what we sell) and their “how” (how we produce it) and too rarely give enough importance to the “why”, their reason to exist. As he likes to repeat during his talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

Answering the “why” is all the more important according to him because it is this one that will allow to convince the early adopters within a market and these are the ones who will decide whether to adopt your innovation or not.

In an Agile transformation, things are not so different. Early adopters are your future ambassadors, they are precious allies who will convince others and facilitate the adoption of change. If these allies are unable to understand “why” the company is implementing Scrum, they will be unable to explain it in your absence. This situation creates a perfect breeding ground for the Zombie Scrum, where everyone knows what Scrum is and how it is done but has no idea why.

It is therefore imperative to integrate the “why” in your agile approaches. Your change agents must not only understand and apply Scrum to the letter but also understand why this framework works in order to get the benefits promised by Scrum.

Living the ‘why’ in everyday life

There are several ways to integrate the “why” into your Agile transformations. At Arexo,

we experience the following:

The Nine Why’s

The Nine Why’s is an iterative questioning technique that makes a goal explicit and creates alignment within a team. This makes it possible to analyze a problem in depth in a fairly simple way.

We can adapt this technique around the artifacts, events and roles related to Scrum.


WIIFM or “What’s in it for me” is a Change Management technique that helps defuse resistance to change. With a targeted and explicit message, it is possible to encourage the adoption of change.

At Arexo, we believe that an effective WIIFM in terms of Agile transformation (which is a change in itself) must integrate the benefits of Scrum and the “why” of Scrum and not another framework.

Agile Cycle and Values

It is also possible to use the Agile cycle and propose to a team to match each event, role or Scrum artifact with the Agile values, the Scrum principles and the 3 fundamental pillars.

This makes their role and “why” explicit while aligning understanding across the team.

To go further…

Finally, it is possible for very experienced teams who already have an excellent understanding of the why of Scrum, to reappropriate certain aspects of it (for example the #NoEstimate movement). It is thus possible for a team to change its way of estimating, to transform its daily routine and many other things. Be creative!

Keep in mind, however, that we do not recommend this technique for a young team. Indeed, to re-appropriate something, you need to have a clear vision within the team of the main function of the artifact to be re-appropriated and this clear vision only comes with an excellent understanding of why this artifact exists within Scrum.

Key Takeaways

The benefits offered by Scrum are tempting on paper and any organization is probably right to consider an agile transformation. Nevertheless, Scrum is too often presented through its “what” and its “how” instead of its “why”. This situation leads to a proportion of Agile transformations that give rise to so-called “Scrum Zombie” organizations. The result looks like Scrum from afar: the artifacts, events and roles are well represented but these organizations fail to reach the potential promised by Scrum. There are some remedies to Zombie Scrum and at Arexo, we strongly believe that integrating the “why” into your agile transformations is one of them.

Want to discuss this further with us?

Join us at the Agile Tour Brussels (30/10/2020) or at the Agile Grenoble (25/11/2020).

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