Impediments in Scrum Project Management

David Tzemach

Posted On: August 4, 2022

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Read time7 Min Read

You have selected your new Scrum Masters, and they are ready to do their job as one of the key stakeholders in your Scrum teams. The project starts, and everything is looking great. The Scrum events are happening, the team is working as a single unit, and the velocity is increasing, so we can conclude the team is performing at the highest level.

highest level

Then, the impediments start to appear without warning, and they don’t allow the team to keep the same performance as before. We should have a closer look at impediments.

Impediment Definition and Meaning

Before reviewing different impediments that may arise during a Scrum project, we first need to understand what an impediment is? The Cambridge dictionary describes the formal definition of “impediment” as “something that makes progress, movement, or achieving something difficult or impossible.”

In addition, if we want to see how it relates to the Scrum environment, we can add, “An impediment in Scrum is a factor that blocks the Development Team in its creation of valuable software in a sprint, or that restricts the team in achieving its intrinsic level of progress.” [Scrum: A Pocket Guide]

Here are some common questions and answers about impediments:

Q1: Can the team start a sprint with impediments?
Yes, as long as there are no critical impediments entirely blocking their ability to work and deliver their commitments.

Q2: What should the team do if there are many impediments during the sprint?
The team should keep working on those stories not directly impacted by the impediments. In addition, they must communicate it to their Scrum master/ Team leader to initiate a mitigation plan. To their Product Owner, they must be informed of any changes in the team’s ability to meet the sprint goal.

Q3: Who should be the owner of an impediment?
A common answer is that it’s the SM’s responsibility to take ownership of them. This doesn’t seem right, and the SM is only responsible for summarizing, tracking, and ensuring the relevant impediments are removed. S/he can do this by using other stakeholders or doing it directly. A more accurate answer is that the SM, together with the team, must collaborate to mitigate the impediments by identifying suitable stakeholder/s who can take ownership and remove the impediment as quickly as possible.

Q4: Can an impediment stop the sprint?
In rare cases, yes. For example, one of the team’s sprints mostly requires working with an external supplier. After the sprint starts, it becomes apparent that the supplier is not available for the team, preventing them from proceeding with work on these stories. This effectively blocks the sprint as the team can no longer meet the sprint goal.

Q5: Who is responsible for determining the prioritization for executing the mitigation plan for impediment removal?

This prioritization process is mostly based on the team. Based on the team inputs, the Product Owner will prioritize the activities required to implement the mitigation plan. Below are factors that should be taken into consideration as part of the prioritization process:

  • The risks of both removing and not removing the impediment.
  • Effect on the sprint goal.
  • Impact on team motivation.
  • Impact on velocity.
  • Impact on the product and its quality.
  • Impact on the project timelines.

Common impediments in Scrum projects

In Scrum, impediments can come from different areas and in all shapes and sizes. It is thus imperative for the team to have the relevant knowledge and experience to recognize them before they become unmanaged problem/s.

Let us review some of the most common impediments that arise in almost any project:

The use of unstable builds

During the sprint, the build is corrupted. This prevents the team from progressing. Once this happens, the SM must speak with the CI team to ensure they dedicate the relevant resources to solve the problem as soon as possible.

Impediments related to the Scrum implementation process itself

Sometimes the team starts working with either a partially completed Scrum implementation or a misinterpretation of the Scrum Framework. The following are common impediments I have witnessed relating to this:

  • Lack of management support for the new process.
  • Lack of understanding of the Scrum roles and events that impact the team’s ability to perform optimally.
  • The scale of Scum is not defined, leading to major pitfalls related to integration between teams.
  • Some managers still use old techniques that prevent their teams from adopting the Agile mindset fully.

Blockers for a user story

User stories are planned and committed before the start of the sprint. Problems may occur during the sprint. Blocked stories can be a result of either external or internal factors, or both, for example:

  • Crucial bugs are holding back the full delivery.
  • Stories committed are not defined properly.
  • Dependency on a third party tool that has not been delivered on time.

Lack of technical knowledge

The team often needs to deliver stories without the experience or technical knowledge to handle them. The SM’s responsibility is to ensure that the team closes any knowledge gaps. A few examples:

  • Provide technical training for the team in areas where they do not have the necessary knowledge.
  • Add another member to the team who can provide the necessary knowledge and experience to handle similar stories.
  • Ensure an expert attends the planning meeting to share her knowledge with the team.

The bad apple in the basket

In some cases, the biggest impediment is one of the team members. This person thinks he knows everything. He believes Scrum is a waste of time, and therefore he is not willing to commit to the process. Such a team member may directly affect other team members and should be quickly dealt with.

The working environment prevents the team from performing optimally

The physical working environment should allow the team to perform at the highest level. The SM’s responsibility is to ensure the team has a suitable physical working location to maximize their performance.

Techniques Available to the Team to Remove Impediments

Creating a fast mitigation plan for impediments holding back the team is crucial in the Scrum environment. Below are some of the common techniques used by my teams to solve various impediments:

Keep an active approach.

Let us take the daily Scrum meeting, for example. Commonly, during these meetings, impediments will be raised as part of the team discussions. Therefore, I encourage Scrum Masters to be proactive and find impediments before the meeting. Remember: The SM is part of the team and should see impediments without the need for the team to report them every 24 hours explicitly.

Understanding the complete picture before creating a mitigation plan
Before creating a mitigation plan, it is important to understand the full impact of the identified implementation; below is a list of questions to use to achieve this:

  • How does it affect the product?
  • How does the impediment affect the teams’ progress?
  • How urgent is it that we solve it now?
  • Is it a blocker to releasing the product?
  • What are the risks and complexity in solving the impediment?
  • Is the impediment just a symptom of a bigger problem?
  • Does the impediment represent a real problem?

Impediments as an advantage for improvement

For me, this is what differentiates a great Scrum Master from a mediocre one; a great SM can take impediments and use them as an advantage for educating and promoting the Scrum process, Agile mindset, and team knowledge.

Give the tools instead of a quick solution.

The Scrum Master should provide the team with the necessary tools to handle the same future impediments without waiting for him/her. This will enable team members to resolve their problems and reduce the bottlenecks through the sprint.

Mitigate the root cause

This is like any other RCA process where the investigator should not resolve the symptoms but instead strive to find the root cause. If the root cause is not resolved, it will most likely result in the reoccurrence of the impediment.

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David Tzemach

The founder and owner of the Agile Quality Made Easy blog (25K followers). A platform that he uses for teaching and coaching others, sharing knowledge with people, and guiding them towards success while giving them the inspiration and tools to discover their own path.

Blogs: 55


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