There are always hurdles: managing impediments correctly
Every agile team knows problems and disruptions that endanger the success of the project. In Scrum teams, it is the task of the Scrum Master to recognize, document, manage, and if necessary eliminate by herself these so-called “impediments”. Dealing with impediments is demanding because not all situations that hinder the team are immediately apparent as impediments. In this article, in addition to typical impediments, I also present a method that has proven itself in the Scrum teams we have supported.
What are impediments?
Impediments are influences or obstacles…
- that cannot be eliminated through self-organization within the team
- that hinder the team’s work and slows down progress
- that limit the application of the agile Scrum framework
- that keep the team from getting even better
Impediment examples from everyday agile work
- Premises that do not allow for face-to-face communication within the team
- Overheated rooms in summer
- Too many sick team members
- Insufficient technical equipment (e.g. small monitors or missing testing environment)
- Poor availability of the product owner
- Skill deficiencies in the team
- Skill deficiencies in the Scrum Master (e.g. mediation skills in conflicts)
- Lack of commitment from management
Transparency of Impediments
Step 1 on the way to an efficient scope with impediments is transparency. The team must agree that problems are actively addressed and continuous optimization is only possible on the basis of regular, self-critical reflection.
“Periodicly, the team reflects on how they can become more effective and adjusts their behavior accordingly.” (from the Agile Manifesto)
For Scrum teams, the retrospective has established itself as a regular meeting. But in many cases, it doesn’t make sense to wait for the next retrospective. If the sprint goal is at risk, the Daily Scrum is a good way to communicate obstacles. An attentive Scrum Master will also anticipate impediments that are not obvious — for example, inadequate conflict resolution in the team or weaknesses in the prioritization of tasks by the product owner.
Dealing with impediments
If a problem cannot be solved directly during the daily scrum or as part of the retrospective, it must be recorded in an impediment backlog. Because if forgotten and unresolved impediments add up, it is usually not only the next sprint goal that is in danger but in the worst case the entire project. And even with seemingly unproblematic project progress, there is usually something that can still be improved. A completely empty Impediment Board is therefore more of a sign of a lack of agile mindset — in this case, the Scrum Master’s task would be to help identify problems and to create an open, trusting climate that is open to discussion.
The goal is an intensive discussion of problems and a timely solution of impediments. Important: Even if the Scrum Master has the role of “impediment remover”, he is not solely responsible for solving the problems. Efficient impediment management should also be in the interest of the management so that the Scrum Master receives the necessary support — possibly also through additional resources or help from outside.
The Impediment Backlog
In our experience, a table with the following columns has proven useful for documenting impediments:
Case: Description of the problem in the context of the sprint
Priority: How urgent is the elimination of the impediment on a scale from 1 (can wait) to 5 (very critical)? For example, providing logs for the production environment is more important than logs for the test environment. But also the accumulation of the same or similar problems can increase the priority of the elimination.
Who: Which person(s) can solve the problem? If a specific assignment is difficult, at least the context of the impediment should be clearly documented (e.g. affected server or service).
Stakeholders: Who submitted the impediment?
Date: When did the problem occur or when was the obstacle detected?
Solution: What solution ideas are there for eliminating the impediment? It is crucial that solutions relate to the actual elimination of the cause of the problem and not just eliminate individual symptoms (“healing instead of alleviation”). In consultation with the product owner (!), a product backlog item for the improvement can already be formulated.
Status: What is the processing status of the impediment?
JIRA Ticket: If Atlassian JIRA is used, the associated ticket for the solution idea is added to this column and a number is automatically generated, which enables the exact assignment of solutions to the individual impediments.
Whether the impediment backlog is visualized on a whiteboard or maintained with a tool like JIRA is secondary. It is important that it is easily accessible for the team at all times and prevents repression or forgetting.
In order to develop meaningful solutions together, we recommend using SMART criteria when formulating the suggestions or, as with user stories, the INVEST rules. In this way, the solution ideas at refinement or planning meetings can be understood and appreciated more quickly and easily.
Status quo of impediments
The status of the recorded impediments should be checked regularly in the retrospectives. If teams have only been working in a self-organized and agile manner for a short time, experience has shown that impediments accumulate at the beginning — in this case, we have had good experiences with “Communities of Practice”. Similar to task force teams, these reflect at short intervals (e.g. weekly 30 to 60 minutes) with the affected team members on the recorded impediments, record new problems, and coordinate the implementation of solutions among themselves.
Proven measures for solving impediments should also be made available to other teams within the organization in order to establish a culture of mutual learning. The transparent transfer of knowledge is possible, for example, with the help of newsletters, agile blogs, or cross-team Scrum of Scrums and retrospectives according to LeSS (= Large Scale Scrum).
It is not always possible to remove impediments quickly and easily. A prerequisite for good impediment management — and thus for optimal team flow — is courage, perseverance, a culture of communication, and transparency.