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Agile Teams and Managers can Collaborate to Solve Impediments

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Impediments are issues that hinder agile teams. They are problems that teams are facing, which they need to solve. Managers can help agile teams in several ways to solve impediments.

In the blog post managers and impediments Joe Little provides questions that managers can use for addressing impediments with teams. He suggests that managers should collaborate with teams by asking them how they can help them, in stead of imposing help and risking to become an impediment to the team:

It is remarkable how often, in trying to help, we managers actually get in the way. We distract, we interrupt, we just don’t help.

OTOH, sometimes things that actually are helpful are not understood in that way. If the Team does not understand (in your opinion), at least listen carefully to their opinion. They might actually be correct.

According to Joe the essential question for a manager to ask the team is “are there any impediments you would like me to help you with?":

(…) the answer always must be ‘yes’, and the only real question is deciding which one. It probably will be one where the manager is competent to help. And then, more competent than the Team itself to fix.

Since software development is knowledge work, managers should check with their teams how much time they are spending to “sharpening the saw”.

I recommend that the Team spend about 1/7th of its ‘power’ (time) on getting better (aka fixing impediments).

During an agile transformation teams can face impediments as Damir Prusac describes in the enemy is called impediment. Managers should serve teams to solve impediments together:

If leaders help out to resolve impediments in the people’s way, they will contribute to the credibility of incoming changes. My experience has shown a small number of impediments coming from the teams. Either they were solved by the teams themselves or they were not recognized as such. We believe it’s a mixture. The leaders are there to help teams to prevent, recognize and solve impediments.

When there is a structural issue underlying an impediment then managers would have to address this to enable teams to deal with the impediment. Damir gives an example:

If our vision is deploying Scrum ‘by the book’, while using the appropriate SW engineering practices; best in line with our transition moment, we are not there – we have a structural impediment. Looking deeper, an adequate coaching (or coaches) was missing to deploy Scrum, which was another structural impediment – actually a cause. We were lacking systematic agile coaching. This was good! Understanding that the problem exists is half of the solution! The other half is then left to Mr. Kaizen – continuous work to improve and resolve the issues – on all levels of the organizations – from the team up to the CEO.

If an impediment can be solved by the team itself then the Scrum master is often the one taking the lead. In her blog about the top 5 ways scrummasters can kick impediments to the curb Tommi Johnstone provides suggestions for Scrum masters to recognize and solve impediments:

  1. Stand It Up: [The daily standup] is the ideal time to outright ask the Team if there is anything standing in their way, literally getting it straight from the Scrum horses mouths. Armed with Team feedback, the ScrumMaster is off to the races to research, remove or at least reduce any impediments.
  2. Don’t Be Afraid to Get in a Fight: (…) it’s up to the ScrumMaster to protect the Team by acting as a filter to the outside world and guarding the Team against distractions. (…) never be afraid to stand up for the Team to the Business Owners and Stakeholders.
  3. Encourage the Team on the Right Behaviors:  (…) Seek out, foster and leverage Team behaviors that reinforce the Team Values of: Openness, Focus, Commitment, Respect, Courage, Visibility and Humor. It’s a great way to build a habit of improvement in the Team that nicely remedies those impediments.
  4. Seeing is Believing: (…) When the Team sees their impediments listed, it reinforces that they are being heard, and that’s one of the intangibles that make the difference between a good Scrum Team and a great Scrum Team.
  5. Be Present and Connected with the Team: (…) A truly connected ScrumMaster encourages the Team to hold each other accountable, to challenge and, in turn, grow. A smart ScrumMaster will enable the Team to celebrate each other’s success, take the time for the Team to play together, and, just like a good kindergarten teacher, allow friendships to blossom.

Tom Perry, author of the little book of impediments, wrote the blog post those are not my impediments. He explains that impediments are problems that team members think that need to be solved, which can differ from what a manager thinks that should be done:

Often, what I think I see are two different lists of impediments: the scrum master, coach or manager’s list, and the team’s list. The scrum master is scratching their head wondering, “How can I get these guys to engage with these impediments?” Meanwhile, the team is thinking, “Do you really want to eliminate an impediment? Fire a scrum master!”

So I guess the lesson here is that often nobody is all that interested in what you think the impediments are. They already know what the impediments are. They’re just waiting for someone to really listen.

Do you have examples of agile teams and managers having collaborated to solve impediments?

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