Scrum Master job descriptions typically include the following: “Help remove impediments for the team” or “Accountable for removing impediments”. Organizations clearly find impediment removal to be an important aspect of the role. But what is meant by impediments? Should a Scrum Master remove all the impediments for the team? Let’s dive in.
What are Impediments?
Impediments are any obstacles or issues that slow down or block the team from delivering value and achieving their goals. Impediments can relate to a variety of aspects in product development, including technological or process issues as well as issues within the team or organization itself, or external to it.
Scrum Teams will inevitably encounter impediments in a complex environment. They will need to identify and address them in order to continuously improve their performance and become more efficient and effective in delivering value to their customers.
Common examples of impediments for a Scrum Team include:
- Shortage of relevant skills or knowledge on a team
- A lot of technical debt
- Adverse team dynamics
- Lack of management support
- Inability to make decisions because of lack of empowerment
- Dependencies on other teams or external sources
- Technical issues, like access to tools, networks being down and broken laptops
- Bureaucracy, e.g. distractions from legacy processes
Who is responsible for identifying and raising impediments?
Anyone on the team can identify and bring up any obstacles that they believe stop or slow the team down from making progress and delivering value. Raising and dealing with impediments is a team responsibility and the Scrum Team should regularly inspect and improve upon their processes, tools and interactions so they can be more effective. The Scrum Master can facilitate this process by encouraging the team to share their concerns and collaborate on solutions.
When should team members raise impediments?
Impediments that the team faces during the Sprint should be made known as early as possible and at a minimum they should be raised at the Daily Scrum. However, Developers should not feel the need to wait for their Daily Scrum if they are blocked or hindered from making progress.
The Sprint Retrospective can be a good opportunity to work through recurring impediments as the team will have time to reflect more deeply on issues they are facing. As in the case of the Daily Scrum, Developers should not wait for the Sprint Retrospective to bring up impediments.
It is essential for Scrum Teams to continually identify, discuss and deal with impediments so they can progress toward their goal in an efficient and effective manner.
Who should remove impediments for the Scrum Team?
A Scrum Master should not personally tackle and remove each and every impediment for the Scrum Team. This would cause the team to overly rely on the Scrum Master and inhibit them from developing their ability to self-manage. Instead, a Scrum Master should enable an environment in which team members understand and confront their problems. They should feel able to highlight the impediments they are facing and encourage team members to solve their own problems. The Scrum Master can also further support the team by working with them to prevent potential future impediments.
There may be circumstances when a Scrum Master chooses to actively remove an impediment. These situations usually occur when there is an organizational impediment that is a major distraction. For instance, a Scrum Master may choose to directly work on removing the impediment when there is a dependency with another team and the Developers are unable to coordinate with them because the other team is unwilling. The Scrum Master may step in to help.
The Scrum Master may also step in to serve the organization when it is facing impediments. For example, an organization may assume all business analysts are automatically Product Owners. The Scrum Master could work on addressing this misunderstanding of Scrum and the Product Owner accountability.
How to help the team address impediments
As a Scrum Master you can facilitate the process of identifying and addressing impediments by encouraging the team to share their concerns and collaborating on solutions to overcome them. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Identify Impediments
You can help support the team and dig deeper by asking questions like:
- Is this a recurrent impediment?
- What do we need to resolve this impediment ourselves? Is it within the control of our team?
- If we cannot resolve the impediment within the team, what steps can we take to resolve this? Who do we need support from?
- Is the impediment part of a wider issue? How can we find out if the impediment is part of a wider issue?
- What is the current impact of the impediment on our ability to deliver value?
- What will be the impact of the impediment if we do not deal with it? Or, what would be the risk if we can’t solve the impediment?
- Should we tackle this impediment?
2. Create transparency around impediments
Visualize and track impediments on a (virtual) board or wall that is easily accessible to everyone involved. They may even choose to make this publicly available to encourage wider conversation and support. This could be the existing Scrum Team’s board, which may be especially useful to highlight obstacles that block work that is within the Sprint.
One way to gauge the impact of an impediment is to refocus the team on their Sprint and Product Goals. This will help the team see if the impediments are truly an issue for at least the current Sprint.
3. Encourage the team to proactively resolve their own problems
Some teams fall into a pattern of believing that they cannot change or influence things in their work environment, which can cause a sense of helplessness among team members. As a Scrum Master you can encourage teams to take a proactive approach instead by focusing on what is within their control so they can solve the problem. Additionally, help teams to explore how they can expand their sphere of influence for those impediments that are currently out of their control with an exercise such as The Circle of Influence and Control. As a result the team builds a stronger sense of ownership over their impediments and team members may be more motivated to improve continuously.
Some organizations, Scrum Teams and even Scrum Masters themselves have interpreted the Scrum Master as a person who should remove all impediments for a team. The problem with this interpretation is twofold: it hinders a Scrum Team from learning how to self-manage and diminishes the effectiveness of a Scrum Master.
Rather than directly tackling each impediment, a Scrum Master can help set the team up for success by finding ways and techniques to solve their problems which enables them to improve. They do this by facilitating conversations and advocating for the Scrum Team; however, they must do this without becoming a proxy to other departments or to leadership. Acting as a proxy, or someone who does not have first-hand knowledge of the situation or the ability to directly make changes, creates a bottleneck between the team and those external to the team.
Any team using Scrum effectively will encounter impediments. The Scrum Team’s ability to inspect and adapt will increase when a Scrum Master enables them to address their impediments themselves. When they aren’t able to do so, they should know to share these issues with the organization and share how they are preventing them from working toward their shared goals.