Impediments Are Our Friends
One powerful and often misunderstood maxim exists in the Scrum Guide section describing roles on the Scrum Team, where the scrum master’s service to development teams is described. We’re told scrum masters assist dev teams by “Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress,” yet little guidance is provided regarding what impediments really are or how involved scrum masters should be in their removal.
Imagine for a moment that impediments are no longer the fires we rush to fight, but instead they become the fires we tranquilly prevent by welcoming them into existence. Here, we can now create a common language for impediment discussion. We can originate and share proven strategies to ease formation of solutions. We can see the positive side of impediments and use our awareness of them to fuel continuous improvement.
Blockers, hurdles, obstacles and constraints are common replacement words for impediments. Problems, red tape, and overhead could also hint at impediments. Essentially, impediments are anything that slows or impedes a team’s progress toward delivery of done increments that accomplish sprint goals. Unlike dependencies, impediments exist long before sprints begin and lie well beyond the scope of user stories and tasks.
Types of common impediments to developer productivity may include resource availability, business domain knowledge, necessary technical skills, poor backlog refinement practices and technical debt. Conversely, people-based impediments reducing value delivery may come from managers, stakeholders, subject matter experts, product owners, development team members or scrum masters behaving in ways that compromise the scrum framework and agile mindset.
We identify and remove these impediments to improve workflow so higher quality and superior value can be delivered to customers, doing so with ease and at a sustainable tempo. Our biggest challenge is devising lean strategies to properly identify, classify, manage, report and resolve impediments.
See the Transparency
Impediments can be identified at any time and sooner is always better than later. Though it is common practice to surface impediments during the daily scrum, high-performing teams understand the advantage of immediately sharing news of impediments with teammates upon first discovery. Ideally, impediments can also be mentioned at all the other scrum events including sprint planning, sprint review, sprint retrospective and backlog refinement.
The ability to effectively oversee resolution of impediments depends on the scrum master’s level of immersion and the depth of understanding the corporate culture surrounding the team(s) domain. Continuous collaboration with product owners and development team members helps scrum masters navigate teams around the churning storms and lurking icebergs. Though anyone on scrum teams can identify and resolve impediments, scrum masters are explicitly knighted as the ultimate impediment crusher.
Effective resolution of impediments begins with dissolution of known symptoms to reveal unknown root causes. Root cause analysis, leveraging the 5-Whys or similar techniques, help us isolate an impediment’s true source and pinpoint the best person or group to assist with resolution. If your strategy for resolution does not identify participating individuals, you’ll need to do more digging.
Quoting the Status Quo
Recurring, stubborn impediments expose symptoms of deeper issues within an organization’s culture. These landmine impediments can resurface when least expected, stopping teams in their tracks as sprint productivity grinds to a halt. To suppress the monotony, teams often numb themselves to the elephants in the room by speciously labeling them “business as usual” or “the way it’s always been done,” and will avoid mentioning these types of impediments during daily standups. Longstanding impediments may be swept under the carpet, but that doesn’t make them go away.
Diligent scrum masters will continually bring these types of dogged issues to the team’s attention, along with conducting daily health checks, to promote achievement of valuable sprint goals. Exposing persistent problems and coaching teams toward solving them are a fundamental way seasoned scrum masters lead an organization toward continuous improvement and leaner workflows.
Turning the Tide
Impediment removal is essential for accurate story sizing, consistency of sprint metrics and honing a team’s ability to consistently deliver done increments. Unresolved issues throttle value streams and weaken our ability to quickly respond to market feedback.
Desire to maintain yesterday’s velocity can usurp time needed to attack the real problems. As a result, technical debt snowballs, while our product loses the crucial elasticity needed for future scaling, refactoring and enhancement.
Proper management of impediments requires full transparency through shareable information radiators. Dedicated impediment logs or sections of existing scrum boards can facilitate this needed transparency. Prioritization, publishing and communicating the status of identified impediments ensures all interested parties keep abreast of the path toward problem resolution and closure. Sprint ceremonies, especially sprint reviews and retrospectives, are opportune occasions to celebrate conquered impediments.
In addition to transparency, impediment radiators steer us away from anti-patterns that could thwart successful handling of these pesky productivity obstructions. Some impediment log anti-patterns to be aware of include scrum masters wielding full control of impediment logs, empty impediment logs, static impediment logs, scrum master solely handing all impediment resolutions and impediment logs that grow so large they become unmanageable.
Though not as glamorous as meeting facilitation or metric chart population, energies wisely invested into successful impediment oversight enable scrum teams to more frequently bask in the glow of triumphant sprints. We realize impediments are rooted in people and we must first connect the right people to impediments before they can be obliterated.
No longer forced to raise the white flag for every unmovable barrier, scrum teams can now see themselves as enabled to devise and implement practical strategies for impediment reduction. Humility, tenacity and transparency are elemental in our quest to declutter congested runways for smooth product launches. Shining our light on impediments to make them visible is the first step toward making them disappear.