Zombie teams, Zombie coaches, agile teams, scrum teams
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Original date of note: 03/15/2010

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Teams must be authorized to create team culture. They must be 100% free to invent, create, manifest and work inside their own special, unique, meaningful, largely self-determined team culture.

Ground rules set the stage for culture. All else follows. If the ground rules prevent teams from creating culture that is all theirs, then the team is dependent on outside authority and that team can never reach the hyper-productive state. The team is by definition a Zombie team ™.



One definition of a zombie is someone "who acts or responds in a mechanical or apathetic way, and appears as a reanimated dead or a mindless human being".

Zombies seem to be alive, but are not.

This zombie concept also applies to teams.

A Zombie team is “a team that acts or responds in an apathetic way.” and "appears dead."

A Zombie team is lifeless....it is DEAD to self-organization, dead to group learning and dead to the hyper-productive state. A Zombie team has no authority-- no “right to do work”-- and thus has absolutely no self-determination to make critical team decisions.

Zombie teams are demoralized, dead teams.

Zombie teams typically have no authority to expel a lazy or otherwise unproductive member of the team. When Scrum is implemented in this way, the implementation creates a Zombie team.

Your team might be a Zombie team if:

1.The team appears apathetic, lifeless and dead

2.The team depends on an outside source to give them authorization-- "the right to do work"

3.The team exhibits a low frequency of communication between members

4.The team in general engages in little if any group learning ceremonies and activities


Zombie teams are often created by ill-intentioned “agile coaches” who are optimizing on billable hours-- not team health and wellness. Such coaches are Zombie coaches.

If a team is whole and well, and experienced, it needs very little if any further coaching. Period !

That, by definition, reduces billable hours for the Zombie coach. A dead Zombie team, on the other hand, requires endless hand-holding... and a repeating of the same basic lessons-- over and over. This is because they are dead as a team. And dead teams need help. Teams that are thriving DONT.

The most immediate way to create a Zombie team is to tell the team is has no authority to expel a team member-- for being unproductive, lazy, or resisting the mandate to work in an agile way.

By telling the team that it has no authority, you are telling the members that they literally have no power over the life of their group-- their TEAM. You are telling them to 'be ill'.

You are telling them to be dependent on outside authority for team culture definition.

You are telling them that you do not trust them to do the right thing.

You are telling them that you do not actually want them to self organize and reach the hyper-productive state.

Organizations that do not authorize teams to expel unproductive team members are Zombie organizations.

Some Agile "coaches", the ones that are OK with telling teams that they have no authority over team life...that they cannot expel a unwilling team member ....these coaches are Zombie Coaches.

They manifest Zombie teams-- un-dead, lifeless "teams" in name only.

Because Zombie teams require an infinite quantity of coaching, this means infinite billable hours for the Zombie Coach.

Zombie teams are cash cows for Zombie coaches.

You might be a Zombie coach if you continue to work with any one team for more than 7 or 8 iterations.

I am dead serious about Zombie teams. To turn a healthy team into a Zombie team, simply make sure all team members know that they have no collective authority over team life. Specifically, be sure to emphasize that they have no authority to banish unproductive members.

If you are a sponsoring organization starting out with Agile, you can do the Agile practices such as iterations, Daily Scrum, co-location and so on...and still get only marginal results.

This is because if the team is demoralized, agile practices cannot help you.

First things first: allow your teams the ability to "own" their culture. To make this happen, you MUST allow the team some control over who is a member.

If you as the sponsor decide that your team cannot have any control over who is a member, a "Zombie" coach can help you. The Zombie coach can help you rationalize why it is perfectly OK to tell your Scrum team that they may NOT expel any wasteful, lazy or otherwise unproductive team members.

Do you know any agile/Scrum coaches who are still coaching the same teams after more than 7 or 8 iterations? Those coaches are Zombie coaches. They are are optimizing on billable hours, not team health and wellness.


Authority: The Right to Do Work



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About the Author

Dan Mezick: An expert on teams and a trusted adviser to CxO-level executives worldwide, Dan consults on enterprise-wide culture change, implementing Scrum, and the often difficult adoption of authentic Lean principles.

He creates and teaches specific, useful tools and techniques for facilitating successful enterprise-wide adoption of agile and Scrum. Dan’s articles on teams and organizational dynamics appear on InfoQ.com, ScrumAlliance.org, and AgileJournal.com. Learn more about Dan Mezick's agile writing here.

He's the organizer of the Agile Boston user group and a 3-time presenter at Agile2007, 2008 and 2009, an invited speaker to the Scrum Gathering (Orlando) in 2010 and a news reporter for InfoQ.com

Reach Dan at:

dan.mezick [at] newtechusa [dotcom]

You can learn much more detail about Dan via his Agile Coaching page here.

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