Impediments, also known as obstacles and blockers, are anything that is blocking the team from making progress, or is significantly slowing them down.
Impediments can be physical in nature, such as waiting for a part or materials. They can also be dependency-related, such as waiting for an approval or work to be completed by another group. Finally, they can be skill-related such as no one on the team having the required competency to complete tasks efficiently.
Scrum Master or PM is not a Team Mom
There is a misconception that Scrum masters need to rush to remove all team impediments as soon as possible. However, this behavior goes against fostering team empowerment, autonomy and growth. The Scrum master or project manager is not a team mom – always rushing to help or do any unpleasant tasks.
Instead, servant leaders empower teams to remove their own impediments as much as possible. They also help with eliminating impediments teams cannot resolve themselves. It is similar to the quote, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” To optimize value delivery, we want to be building capabilities in teams. This may mean doing the work the first time if they really are stuck, but encouraging teams to do it themselves next time.
1.7.1 Identify Critical Impediments
Determine critical impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team.
Impediments large and small may lurk in many places. Once we get accustomed to looking for them, we begin to see them everywhere. The trick is knowing which to address now and which can be tackled later. Some are very significant and act like boat anchors, pulling us down. Others are more like barnacles, individually small but significant when they accumulate.
First, we find the impediments, then, with help from the team, determine which are most critical to address.
Daily standup – Agile teams often answer three questions during standup. 1) What they have been working on. 2) What they plan to work on next. 3) Are there any blockers or impediments preventing them from working or slowing progress. This third question is an open invitation to report impediments, and good team members look for ways to help. Scrum masters need to pay attention to these items to assist if other team members cannot solve them.
Answers to question 1 at the daily standup might also reveal impediments. If someone is on day three of a task estimated for one day, maybe they are blocked by something? Consider following up after standup if you think it is more than just work taking longer than anticipated.
Observation – Are team members struggling? Does anyone seem extra frustrated, agitated or upset? Perhaps they are blocked by something? Changes in behavior or failure to complete tasks might be signs of impediments. The skill in diagnosing lies in knowing when to enquire and when to hold-back and just make a mental note of the potential problem.
Micro-management is a powerful demotivator, so we do not want to intervene unnecessarily, but so is neglect when people need help! Common-sense and experience working with our team members help us identify when something is merely a temporary setback or when people are experiencing a significant problem.
Value Stream Analysis – Value Stream Analysis is a method for analyzing a system’s current state and designing a better, future state. It examines the steps to take a product or service from the beginning of a specific process until it reaches the customer or consumer. We can use value stream analysis to find queues, delays and flow problems with our own development process.
One recommended practice of lowering the work in progress (WIP) is likened to lowering the river’s water level. It exposes the rocks and obstacles to flow. Once exposed, we can work on removing these obstacles. Reducing WIP can be achieved using Kanban boards with WIP limits on activities to control how many tasks can enter that activity.
Feedback – Customer observations, product demonstrations, review meetings and retrospectives all provide feedback. This feedback might provide insights into impediments, issues, or blockers to be resolved. Retrospectives focus on resolving issues and designing experiments for trialing new ideas. Typically, much of what people are reporting as issues are constraints or impediments.
Backlog Assessment – Impediments might be expressed as dependencies in the backlog. If the work associated with “Filming the TV commercial” is dependent on the “Approval of the marketing budget,” then maybe that marketing budget approval will soon become an impediment impacting progress. Perhaps we can reduce that risk by giving it plenty of lead time and trying to get approvals early?
Review Risks – Obstacles or impediments might be caused by previously identified risks occurring and becoming issues. We should also remember to keep our risk lists updated. When impediments are detected, maybe they could crop up again or somewhere else? Make sure we feed the source of the impediments we encounter into our risk management process so similar threats can be managed appropriately.
Task Age Analysis – Using Kanban boards or work tracking applications, look for old or stuck work items. These are items that have not changed state for a while, indicating they might be stuck and blocked by something. Lean systems that track when work enters the system, when it changes state (from, say, design to build and when items are ready for review) create a wealth of data that can help find blocked work.
Even if not using software applications to track work age, simply adding a tick mark to items on the taskboard every day at the standup meeting will quickly identify old or stuck items. Any that have been stuck for longer than their estimated work time are likely blocked by something (or we have too much WIP)
In the image above, a team uses colored sticky notes to flag blocked items on the taskboard. In this instance the different colors represent different sources of delay. “MS” indicates the Microservices group, a different team. The team is also adding a tick mark every day at standup to show how long items have been blocked for.
1.7.2 Prioritize Impediments
Prioritize critical impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team.
Once we start looking for impediments, we will see them everywhere. Some will be minor without much of an impact; some could be very significant. We need a way to prioritize impediments, so we know which to focus our time and effort on.
Examine the Cost of Delay – Assigning financial values to impediments allows for an apples-to-apples comparison of the impacts. Most impediments contain a time component that explains for every day this item is blocked, it costs the project or organization $x.
We should remember organization costs are likely much higher than team burn rates. Projects are often undertaken to create a return on investment via a product or service or satisfy a legal or regulatory requirement. The full cost of a delay might be a small project cost plus a large organizational cost because a competitor product gained traction, or our organization was found in non-compliance. For more on cost-of-delay see here.
Ask the Business – Just as we engage the business in defining scope, and for agile projects, prioritizing the backlog, it might be appropriate to discuss the relative priorities of impediment removal. I am not suggesting taking every small team issue to the business; they have their own problems and will likely wonder why they hired a project manager if they have to solve everything.
Instead, for impediments that have a business outcome impact, it might be worth getting their view on the priority. Maybe they are fully aware that “Joe in Accounting is slow at providing information” and have plans in hand to address it. Perhaps “Customer A is not as strategic as customer B,” and they would prefer us to remove a different impediment first. So, for business-impacting impediments, get their input on the real priority.
Ask the Team – Since most impediments are raised by team members, we should ask them which are the most critical to be solved. Maybe the issue is only temporary, and while “waiting for legal review has taken an extra week,” it is a one-off, and a more significant concern is the “shortage of testing capacity.” Teams are usually closer to the execution of work than project managers are, so we should engage team members in determining the priority of blockers to be removed.
Impediments and problems should be discussed at the retrospectives that occur at the end of every sprint/iteration. At the retrospective, it is normal to ask the team which issues they want to tackle in the next sprint or iteration. Not all problems can be solved, and not all impediments impact the team equally. We should take an economic view of decision making and decide where best to prioritize our limited time and effort. It is usual for teams to use dot-voting or other group decision-making approaches to vote on which impediments to prioritize.
Asking the team, “if you each get three votes to distribute across these impediments, where would you like to see us focus?” is one way to engage the team in prioritizing which obstacles they would like to have removed.
1.7.3 Resolve and Remove Impediments
Use your skills and network to implement solutions to remove impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team.
Now we have found the impediments and gained insights into their significance and priority, it is time we set about solving or at least reducing them. Remember, the project manager or Scrum master is not the team mom. Where possible, we want to encourage and empower the team members to remove their own impediments.
To help get team members used to solving their own impediments, we could ask the team how they might solve an issue. If their solution is legal, morally responsible and not against company policy, we could ask if anyone thinks they could do it? If we get a volunteer, empower them to do it and follow up on the result. Praise any success in public, and review any failures privately. Building team capabilities is a core role of a servant leader.
Go See – Assuming the team was not able to fix the issue, it is now up to us as a servant leader to try and remove the roadblock. The first step is to go and make sure we truly understand the issue.
The lean approach “Gemba walk” means “Go see” or, more fully, “Go see, ask why, show respect.” It is an excellent reminder for us to, when required, go to the real place of the impediment and experience it. Only then will we fully understand what is happening, and we might realize we did not fully appreciate it initially.
Also, the act of paying attention and taking the time to care about team member issues can help people come to terms with them. Once we see how slow a machine is, how poor a vendor’s customer service is, people feel heard and are no longer suffering alone. It does not solve the problem, but the first step in resolution is often admitting there is a problem.
Remove Obstacles – Now we have been to see the problem; hopefully, we understand it better. The next step is to try and resolve it. Many problems are people problems. Perhaps accounting is difficult to deal with because nobody gives them any notice of all these unplanned project requests. Use empathy and emotional intelligence to diagnose the problem and offer to do what you can to help resolve it. Often when people see you are interested in their perspective and willing to try and help solve a problem, they will meet you halfway.
Some impediments are physical, maybe Joe’s knob-coupler machine truly is bent, and he needs a new one. Perhaps an extra forklift driver or faster production server is worth the expenditure given the full cost of delay. Maybe the problem is our process, and two levels of approval is overkill for business requested features.
Any process changes need appropriate approval. If we are operating in a safety-critical environment such as handling nuclear waste or air traffic control, there will likely be rigorous processes in place. In most organizations, leadership will be glad people are taking the initiative, solving problems and optimizing value delivery.
Escalate – Some things will be outside a circle of influence and will require escalation. If your organization has a project management office (PMO) this is a great place to start. They may know who to talk to, they may know of other projects that have solved the same or similar problems.
Likewise, if your project is part of a large program, maybe the program manager can help. If the project reports into a steering committee or sponsor group, these may be appropriate escalation points. The executives and senior people in these roles usually achieved them by getting stuff done. They typically possess the seniority and influence required to remove obstacles that team leads and project managers cannot.
We cannot take every little complaint to the executive, since they will also wonder why they have employed a project manager. However, for blockers you cannot budge, they might be the best solution.
In agile environments, the Product Owner often has influence beyond the circle of the team and Scrum master. They typically have legitimate business knowledge and connections. Hearing a request from someone in the business, rather than from, say, the IT group, can often get the desired result.
1.7.4 Continually Ensure Impediments are Being Addressed
Re-assess continually to ensure impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team are being addressed.
Minimizing the impacts of impediments is the critical first step. Then, once we have put out the worst of the fires, we need to be on the lookout for the next potential flare-up.
Visualize Impediments. Tracking impediments via big visible graphs, flip charts or visited websites helps us from forgetting them. The task board with blocked items and days-stuck we examined earlier is an example of an information radiator, a big visible chart to keep important information visible to stakeholders. Other examples include a backlog of blockers, a Top-5 Impediments chart, a Help-Wanted, or Solution Bounty posters.
Do not be afraid to show the things keeping your team back. Obviously, do not include personnel-related impediments, but for technical and some process problems, transparency is beneficial. You might be surprised who comes up with a valuable solution. The best leaders “learn-out-loud,” meaning they admit what they do not know, ask for help and are gracious enough to appreciate solutions from anyone trying to assist.
Having impediments visible also helps review them with the team. At a retrospective, it is easier to point to the impediments board and ask if anyone has any new ideas to try or impediments to add rather than go through the whole process of creating the list from scratch each time.
Shield Team from interruptions and sources of impediments – We can reduce the number of potential delays by shielding the team from unnecessary interruption.
Maybe a team member is busy supporting an old product because someone thought they would be the best person to do it. Maybe they are the quickest person to fix it, but by not considering the full cost of delay, maybe they are not the best person to fix it.
Removing distractions allows the team to focus on the project goal. Building a strong project vision with clear objectives removes confusion and enables the project team to be more effective and efficient. By clearing the team’s path, they can do their best work on the project to achieve its desired objectives.
One way to do this is to act as a single point of contact (SPOC) externally for the team. By asking that requests come through us, we can shield their team from superfluous requests and forward along the genuine ones. This allows team members to focus on other work and maintain some concentrate and flow.
Monitor impediments and progress – Check the impediment backlog, task age, blocked stories, etc. Check-in with the team, ask how things are going. Listen for what people say and do not say. Ask if you can help with anything.
Ask opened questions at reviews and retrospectives such as, “if you had a magic wand to help us go faster, what would you wish for?”, or “Where do we need the most help.” These questions might help identify the next set of impediments.
Do more rounds of value stream mapping. Learn what our process efficiency is (ratio of value-adding activities compared to value-adding + non-value adding activities.) Ask how we can remove waste, queues and work in progress.
Do not become complacent. The theory of constraints teaches us that when we eliminate one constraint, we expose the next constraint. We are never done in the process of removing impediments and improving the flow of value.
Finding and monitoring impediments for remote team members is even more difficult. The “out of sight, out of mind” adage is true. We are often blind to the problems workers face that we do not see or experience ourselves. The remote leadership advice of “Check-in, don’t check-up” can help us. Rather than focusing on the work at play, ask how they are doing, how the process is working for them, if they need support anywhere? These types of questions, instead of “is it done yet?” type ones, are more likely to surface impediments.
See the dedicated Agile Primer chapter (pages 16 – 38) in the PM Illustrated book to comprehensively explain how agile approaches handle impediments.
Deliverables and Tools
- Impediments board
- Issues log
- Risk Burndown
- Value stream mapping
- Information radiators
- Reprioritized backlog
- Updated risk list
- Action plans
- Daily standups
- Sprint reviews
- 1.2 Lead a Team
- 1.4 Empower Team Members and Stakeholders
- 1.11 Engage and Support Virtual Teams
- 2.1 Execute Project with the Urgency Required to Deliver Business Value
- 2.3 Assess and Manage Risks
- 2.4 Engage Stakeholders
- 2.5 Plan and Manage Budget and Resources
- 2.14 Establish Project Governance Structure
- 2.15 Manage Project Issues
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