Sleepwalking Through Scrum

How do we recognize when the way we’re “doing Scrum” is impeding our Agility?

Two alternative scenarios are possible:

  1. The Team has fully internalized Agile practice in the past but now seems to be sleepwalking through the Ceremonies: the Team’s Agile practice has gotten stale, we’re sleepwalking through Scrum.
  2. The Team hasn’t experienced Agile practice yet, and Ceremonies feel stale because they’ve not yet come alive.

This post addresses Scenario 1–we’ll address Scenario 2 in a future post.


“Our Team used to really click. We collaborated well, worked creatively. Now our work feels flat.”

First of all, recognize that what you’re experiencing is a normal occurrence in any Team’s life cycle. It’s a well-known psychological principle that even good habits tend to become mechanical over time. Habits give our lives rhythm and familiarity in the world that can feel chaotic. Having a rhythm at work is absolutely necessary; on the other hand, when our habits become entrenched, it’s easy to slide into autopilot.

The Neurology Of Autopilot

Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that our capacity for autopilot is an evolutionary adaptation. Our ability to switch into autopilot gives us the “cognitive flexibility” we need to cope with complexity. Simply put, zoning out helps us divide our attention so we can focus on one issue while mindlessly doing another.

We can take the train to work or drive to the grocery store without much thought because the route is familiar and we don’t need to think about it. As a result, researchers argue, “a considerable portion of our daily lives comprises learned, automatic, reflexive or habitual behaviors under specific contexts in stable environments,” as opposed to more awake, spontaneous responses to the particular situation we’re facing in the present moment.

Autopilot is useful for many moments in life, like making your early morning coffee! But autopilot becomes an impediment when we need to be fully present, awake, and responsive to a new situation—-that is, when our success relies on our ability to detect changes in the environment and adapt to them.

When a Team’s work starts to feel stable and repetitive, we can lapse into sleepwalking, regardless of what methodology we use, no matter how inspired or sophisticated it is. Our very success might lull us into sleepwalking. This can happen even with Scrum, the whole purpose of which is to help deal with reality in Scrum.

We’re all human. So sometimes Ceremonies can become a kind of empty ritual that we do because it’s Tuesday or the third week of the month, not because we feel they’re helping us deal with reality the way they used to.

Detecting When The Team Is Sleepwalking

How do you reawaken Scrum for a Team that knows what it feels like to work together in a natural way? As a Scrum Master or a Stakeholder, your challenge is to help the Team deal with recognizing where it’s really at.

  • We act like we’re on autopilot in Ceremonies. We’re tempted to check email or make mental shopping lists.
  • Review, Planning, or Retrospectives feel like checking a box because nothing new ever happens there.
  • When we’re in Ceremonies, we can’t wait to get back to our “real jobs.”
  • If conflicts come up, we’re more than happy to skip a Ceremony because we know we won’t miss much.

Scrum Team sleeping, back to being a Well Formed Team

The emotional tone these items share is boredom or even resentment! And for good reason: we have made Scrum into a burden. Or putting it in a more responsible way, we have made Scrum practice into a burden. Whoever is responsible, let’s set aside the blame game for a minute, and just acknowledge that something’s not working.

Scrum Mastering

How do you wake the Team up, out of sleepwalking? It may be that circumstances do this for you: maybe the Team hits a wall and is jolted into alarm, a disturbing sense that what we’ve been doing isn’t working: a great opportunity for you as a Scrum Master to help the Team deal with Reality.

If the Team doesn’t hit a crisis that sounds the alarm, then you as Scrum Master become that alarm clock! How? By using provocative Retros to return to Reality, to awaken Curiosity about the challenges faced by the Team, to focus on a bite-sized chunk of work, if the autopilot response is overwhelming.

Notes and Sources

  1. “Agile”, “Scrum Master,” “Stakeholder,” “Review,” “Planning,” “Retrospective.” Accessed February 20, 2019.
  2. Hasson, Uri, Lauren J. Silbert, Greg J. Stephens.” Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication.” PNAS. August 10, 2010. Accessed February 20, 2019.