When organizations discover agile software frameworks such as Scrum, they learn that an important benefit these methods offer is the ability to expose organizational impediments. Indeed, a key responsibility of the ScrumMaster role, in addition to facilitation and coaching, is raising and removing organizational impediments.
But, while on paper it seems innocuous enough, in practice exposing organizational dysfunction can be an uncomfortable process for everyone involved. Individuals often have a strong and personal vested interest in the status quo and may feel threatened when it is called into question. Yet, those questions must be asked. A company cannot truly realize the full benefits of Scrum until it faces its impediments head on and makes an active choice about how to deal with them.
What is an impediment? In my Certified ScrumMaster course, I offer this definition: “An impediment is a process or condition that exists in your organization today that is not in its best long-term interests.”
The definition is purposely broad because impediments come in varied forms and sizes. They may be small and relatively easy to fix (for example, a team room that is always too hot, making it difficult to concentrate) or large and seemingly impossible to resolve (for example, a compensation system completely at odds with the goals the company is trying to achieve). Large or small, one thing all impediments have in common is that they adversely affect the team’s (and, therefore, the organization’s) ability to deliver value.
How can you deal effectively with impediments? The key is to not become overwhelmed by them. Logging, prioritizing and systematically addressing impediments will keep their removal manageable. Keeping the following considerations in mind will set you on a productive path to dealing with the dysfunction you find.
Scrum Will Raise Impediments
1. Scrum will raise impediments
Remind everyone that Scrum will, and is supposed to, raise impediments. Scrum offers a unique and transparent view into the inner workings of an organization. Unfortunately, the view is not always a pretty one. In the early days of learning Scrum, be sure to remind everyone (especially your management) that this is the first step to improvement. You cannot fix problems until you know they exist.
Likewise, be sure your management understands that, in a Scrum organization, their role has changed. No longer are they required to drive employee performance. The self-managed teams now take collective responsibility for technical quality, as well as making and meeting commitments. The Product Owner takes responsibility for product direction and ROI.
Freed from these concerns, management in a Scrum organization must focus on removing impediments. They have a unique view into the organization’s long-term goals and strategies and, taken into consideration with input from the ScrumMaster about impact to the team, can ensure the organization removes its highest value impediments.
Prioritize Issues By Value Or Cost to Fix
2. Prioritize issues by value or cost to fix
Everyone knows an important part of the ScrumMaster role is “removing organizational impediments” but this is a bit of a misnomer. Impediments often need authority and budget to be removed. For this reason, in practice, a ScrumMaster must often raise impediments to management, which then considers how to address them.
Rather than presenting all issues as equal, it can be effective to help management understand which problems are causing the teams the most difficulty. Creating an “impediment backlog,” a prioritized list of problems and issues the teams are experiencing, will help management weigh the potential benefits of removing an impediment against the cost (monetary or otherwise) to do so. This will help your organization make improvements in a cost-effective manner.
Likewise, remember to pick your battles. ScrumMasters and their teams often uncover a flood of impediments in the early days of the first pilot projects. Trying to resolve them all at once can be overwhelming. Instead, consider generating some quick wins by removing a few smaller impediments first. Doing so creates a pattern of success, makes management more open to hearing about issues and prepares the organization for dealing with thornier issues in the future.
Dont Fix Imaginary Impediments
3. Don’t fix imaginary impediments
It can be tempting, if you “know” you are going to experience a given impediment, to try to come up with a solution before the problem itself ever arises. However, to do so is unnecessary and runs the risk of sending you in the wrong direction. Scrum is an empirical method and, therefore, has frequent inspect-and-adapt cycles built in to deal with just such issues as they arise.
A good example of this is documentation. Many organizations feel their documentation processes are too bulky for Scrum and want to “create a new system for documents” before starting their first Scrum project. Instead, I recommend they start Scrum and continue until the point in the project where they would create a certain document (say, a business requirements document). At that point they can decide how that document should be revised. They can then test their approach in the next sprint and get immediate feedback on its effectiveness. In essence, they are doing “just in time” process change and, because of that, are likely to make better choices.
4. Avoid creating world peace
When I visit organizations to provide coaching on Scrum adoption, they often present me with a laundry list of problems and issues that need improvement. They want quick and instant answers to tough, complex problems. I caution such organizations to avoid “creating world peace,” meaning, trying to wrap every problem in their organization into a big tangled ball-which they then try to “solve.” To do so overwhelms everyone and the answer quickly becomes, “You can’t get there from here.”
A better approach in the early days of Scrum adoption is to focus on incremental improvement. The advantage of an empirical approach is that there is no need to solve every problem up-front. Rather, Scrum allows companies to make use of the inspect-and-adapt cycle to try different solutions to problems, allowing the best choice to emerge.
Push on Brick Walls
5. Push on brick walls
Many people, before they learn to think empirically, try to squeeze Scrum into their current processes. They do this because they assume the current processes are “brick walls,” meaning, impenetrable barriers that cannot be moved or changed. But so often that is not true. Processes, like everything, have a life cycle. Over time, their usefulness may fade and, in those cases, they should be replaced with new methods that better serve the organization. ScrumMasters, in particular, need to be willing to raise questionable practices so they can be evaluated.
Ironically, the fiercest impediment that is causing your company the most difficulty is exactly what you should look at fixing and, paradoxically, what you will most likely try to work around. Often, when people say, “We tried Scrum and it didn’t work for us,” what they really mean is, “We tried Scrum and raised an impediment that we find too painful to fix.” Making a conscious choice to live with an impediment is one thing, refusing to see it exists is another. The latter is self-delusion, a dangerous practice in a competitive business environment. American business history is littered with companies that refused to see the light until it was too late.
It has been said that Scrum is not a methodology but a pathway. Scrum will not eliminate the problems in your organization. Quite the opposite: it tends to make them large, obvious and impossible to ignore. Then you have a choice. You can change ineffective processes and conditions or choose to live with them. As long as you make an active choice, there is no wrong path. There is no perfection in Scrum, only an endless cycle of action, inspection and adaptation. In this way, Scrum can help you respond effectively to any challenge, competitive threat or new market opportunity. You need only step onto the pathway to begin.
Angela Druckman is a Certified Scrum Trainer at CollabNet. Having served as a Product Owner, ScrumMaster and team member, Angela has seen first-hand how agile practices and Scrum, in particular, can lead organizations to project success. As one of CollabNet’s Certified Scrum Trainers and a member of its ScrumCORE team, Angela helps organizations harness the Scrum framework’s potential, conducting dozens of public training courses each year, as well as providing on-site, private coaching.
Prior to joining CollabNet, Angela served as a senior project manager at Vertex Business Services. While at Vertex, Angela not only coached client project managers and development staff on the implementation of agile software development practices, but also justified the framework’s business value to internal senior management. Angela’s previous experience also includes working as a program manager with B-Line, LLC, where she developed custom solutions for the nation’s largest purchaser of bankruptcy receivables.
A graduate of the University of Washington, Angela studied computing and software systems. For more on Angela’s thoughts about Scrum, visit her blog at http://blogs.danube.com/author/angela-druckman. She can also be reached at [email protected].