The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand and apply the Scrum framework better.
In a series of blog posts I will share the different stances I consider to be relevant for the Scrum Master. This blog post is about the Scrum Master as an impediment remover. I'll describe the most common definitions and examples of an impediment, the Scrum Master as an impediment remover and tactics to deal with impediments.
Earlier blog posts in this series are:
- The Scrum Master as a Manager
- The Scrum Master as a Mentor
- The Scrum Master as a Teacher
- The Scrum Master as a Facilitator
- The Scrum Master as a Coach
- The Scrum Master as a Servant-Leader
What is an Impediment?
By doing a bit of research I've found quite a few good definitions:
- "An impediment in Scrum is a factor that blocks the Developers in their creation of a valuable piece of software in a Sprint, or that restricts the team in achieving its intrinsic level of progress." [Scrum a Pocket Guide]
- "Problems that go beyond the self-organization of the Developers."
- "An event that impedes any of the developers from working to their anticipated sprint." [Scrum Shortcuts]
Some nice quotes about impediments are:
- "A good Scrum Master creates an environment where raising impediments can occur. A great Scrum Master creates an environment where creativity can occur." [Scrum Mastery]
- "A good Scrum Master will push for permission to remove impediments to team productivity. A great Scrum Master will be prepared to ask for forgiveness.
Examples of Possible Impediments
Now that you've read the most common definitions of an impediment, you probably want some tangible examples. Therefore you'll find some examples of possible impediments below
- Illness of team members
- Unforeseen and undesired changes in team composition
- Issues with the tooling of the Developers
- Scarcity of skills
- Lots of technical debt
- Problems with suppliers
- Unavailability of the Product Owner
- Undesired pressure from management
- Conflict between team members
- Lots of unimportant meetings the Developers has to attend
- Restrictions to the team environment
- An indecisive Product Owner
The Scrum Master as an Impediment Remover
According to the Scrum Guide one of the Scrum Master services to the Developers is removing impediments to the Developers' progress. As a servant leader, the Scrum Master guides the Developers towards self-organization and cross-functionality. The Scrum Master encourages, supports and enables the team to reach their full potential and abilities.
To achieve all this, the Scrum Master should make conscious decisions about removing impediments. Questions to consider are:
- Is it really an impediment or is it something the Developers can resolve themselves?
- Do we actually need remove this impediment?
- What is the real problem here?
It's important to realize that the given examples of possible impediments don't have to be impediments. Something will only become an impediment when it exceeds the self-organizing capabilities of the team.
Scarcity of skills might be become an impediment, but trust the self-organizing character of the Developers to think of other options themselves. Maybe a team member is eager to learn the desired skills and sees this as a great opportunity. Also a conflict between team members doesn't have to be an impediment. Let them have an intense discussion with each other. It's up to the Scrum Master to lead the team through healthy conflict and debate. Eventually this will lead to an even stronger team.
A Scrum Master should create an environment where the Developers feel safe to raise impediments. Respecting the self-organizing capabilities of the team, the Scrum Master should encourage the team in trying to solve their own problems. Or even better, preventing something to become an impediment at all.
Tactics for Removing Impediments
Removing impediments can be a challenge. Below I've shared some tactics and ideas that a Scrum Master can consider when facing impediments.
- Don't wait until the Daily Scrum to raise an impediment! Sure, one of the suggested Daily Scrum questions is "Do I see any impediment that prevents me or the Developers from meeting the Sprint Goal?" But that doesn't mean the Developers can only discuss impediments during the Daily Scrum.
- Use a Sprint Goal. A clear Sprint Goal is an useful instrument to determine if something is truly an impediment. If something prevents the team from achieving the Sprint Goal, than it's definitely an impediment.
- Understand the difference between 'blocks' and 'impediments'. A block affects only a single task, whereas an impediment acts like a parachute, slowing down overall progress. Quite often the Developers can fix 'blocks' themselves whereas impediments need to be fixed by the Scrum Master [Scrum Shortcuts, I. Goldstein].
- Improve transparency by using an 'Impediment Board'. This can be a simple flip-over where the impediments are visualized. Add some swimming lanes like 'to do, in progress, done' and the status is transparent for everyone. Of course you can also add the impediments to the existing Scrum board. Visualizing the status and increasing the transparency hereby is the most important.
- Keep track of fixed impediments. This will provide great input for the Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective.
- Understand the organization. A Scrum Master should understand the organizations culture. He should understand how things get done in the organization. By choosing the right approach, difficult impediments can be tackled easier.
- Be brave and creative in removing impediments. Be prepared to ask for forgiveness afterwards when you need to take bold decisions to ensure the Developers' productivity.
- Collaborate with the Product Owner. Quite often impediments will be related to product management and collaboration with stakeholders and suppliers. The Product Owner is a key player on this area. Therefore ensure a healthy relationship with the Product Owner.
- Stop spending time and effort in solving the wrong problem. With impediments, Scrum Masters need to resist the desire to fix it, solve it and offer solutions. They should focus on the real problem, not the first problem. Ask questions to understand the situation. Check if it's really an impediment or a learning opportunity for the Developers.
By doing some research and thinking of my own I've created a brief description of the Scrum Master as an Impediment Remover. Given the amount of available material, it's clearly an important part of the Scrum Masters role. My main lesson learned is to respect the self-organizing capabilities of the Developers. Considering every minor issue an impediment that needs to be resolved by the Scrum Master, doesn't help the Developers grow as a whole. It's about continuously finding the right balance between preventing or fighting a fire.