Current Scrum Master training and certification lead to zombie teams


You see a lot of people getting disenchanted with agile. Because the transition hasn’t brought the benefits agile proponents promised. You also see a lot of moans about “management” that thinks they can bring in some change managers or agile coaches and “be agile” in two months.

There are plenty of articles on the web bemoaning the “Death of Agile”.

To name but a few.

There are even people looking for a different name, something other than Agile, to distinguish “true” Agile from … hollow(?), zombie(?) Agile. To distinguish “Doing Agile” from “Being Agile”.


They all mention reasons for the disenchantment with agile. A very recent article by an unnamed author (at least I couldn’t find a name anywhere on the blog), sums it up very nicely. The article, Agile is consuming itself, mentions three causes: ignorance, greed, willful misrepresentation.

The causes identified in that article are all at play when it comes to agile transitions failing to deliver the goods. Ignorance and dogmatic approaches to agile frameworks don’t help. Neither does the fact that many consultancy organizations jumped on the agile hype to further their bottom line. And managers seeking to fix their teams without realizing their own role in their dysfunction, haven’t helped either.

I also agree with the author’s sentiment on this:

For those that are working in environments that are Agile in name only, then call this out, transformation to Agile may be beyond your means but at least stop calling it Agile so as to not further tarnish what was once a noble ideology.

Except for the “once a noble ideology”. As I said in the comments: It still is a noble ideology. The fact that it has been perverted by many does not change that.

And I agree that we should call out non-Agile practices being called Agile. I’d much rather do that, than find a new name as some have suggested. Because that will only lead to another round of hype and eventual commercial and managerial hijacking.

Still, I think we need to dig a little deeper.

What has made it possible for agile frameworks to be hijacked in such a manner that they have become an allergen for many people who hold the Agile Manifesto and the Agile Mindset dear to their hearts?

What has caused the spread of “doing agile”?

The author actually points it out: “armed with too little understanding or experience of Agile Values and human politics, and too much theory and process definition.”

Becoming an Agile Coach

Wanting to be an Agile Coach, I focused on gaining coaching skills and was lucky to find and soon after enter into the online version of “Coaching Skills for the Agile Workplace” taught by Sue Johnston of It’s Understood.

Giddy with my new found knowledge and slowly increasing coaching skills, I set out to get a job as an Agile Coach.

I ran into a brick wall, because there seemed to be few Agile Coach job postings. The ones that existed wanted people with umpteen years of experience. I was becoming slightly dejected – how are you to gain experience if nobody offers jobs for beginning coaches?

Then I noticed that all those Agile Coach job postings also asked for Scrum Master certification (or certification on Lean or Kanban). That taught me that the way in was looking for Scrum Master jobs. And indeed that did bring up the number of jobs for people with less experience.

So if you are looking to become an Agile Coach, you need to start out as a Scrum Master.


An Agile Coach helps people and teams become better versions of themselves (well, there is a lot more to it, but let’s go with that for now.) A Scrum Master is the guardian of the Scrum process.

I didn’t see the connection.

Reading through the Scrum Guide, I noticed that there was very little mention of coaching. In fact, the word only occurs three times. In the description of the Scrum Master Role:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality.
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.
  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption.

So there was my connection. Great.

Scrum Master != Agile Coach

When two out of of the five services of a Scrum Master to a Development Team involve coaching, I find it very strange that none of the Scrum Master trainings that I have seen – and I have seen a few lately – include or even talk about coaching skills. Neither do any of the Scrum Master certifications available talk about the need for coaching skills. The coaching aspect of being a Scrum Master is completely snowed under by the weight and volume of the scrum process details.

Is it any wonder that newly minted Scrum Masters focus entirely on the process as laid out in the Scrum Guide?

An Agile transition involves behavioral change. Guiding behavioral change in individuals is hard at best. Doing so for a team even more so. Not to mention how hard it becomes when the organization around the team remains unchanged.

Is it any wonder that an agile transition guided by someone without coaching skills, fails to deliver the behavioral changes needed to make that transition a success? And thus lead to the situation many, many developers find themselves in: zombie teams. Teams agile in name only. Teams doing agile instead of being agile.

A(n agile) coach can function as a Scrum Master. But expecting the reverse is a hit and miss affair, entirely dependent on any pre-existing coaching skills.

As long as organizations think that all they need to do to “get agile” is to send a couple of their people to Scrum Master and Product Owner training, and – if you are lucky – have a “coach” on hand for a couple of months (often just someone with more Scrum Master experience and not necessarily any coaching skills), it’s no wonder that many transitions lead to disenchantment of all parties concerned.

3 comments on “Current Scrum Master training and certification lead to zombie teams
  1. David says:

    Great article,
    As an passionate advocate for AGILE –
    (What) A mindset resulting in Cultural change both at the individual and collective level, resulting in continuous opportunities to adapt to Change through conversation, learning and a winner’s crown.

    My question for all Agilists is what does is Agile to YOU.
    In my travels I have seen a few definitions
    Some say it is SCRUM,
    Others say it is the sense of riding a rodeo horse of improvement, some will and some won’t succeed,
    For some it means more value… better be guaranteed,
    for others an opportunity to fit in
    Unless we ask the question, and believe the given answer can we ever change our minds and mindset and ever truly be all what Agile is.

  2. Phil says:

    Hey there, the article you refer to is mine, Phil Thompson, find me on Twitter at @PhilAgileDesign I clearly need to label my articles better in future – thanks

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