Scrum Master as Impediment Remover

How does a Scrum Master remove the impediments?

Some say, Scrum Master is a manager of one thing — they manage the impediments. Today we will talk about removing blockers for the team’s progress. How is a Scrum Master an impediment remover? What are the impediments? Do we remove the impediments ourselves, do we delegate them to the team? Is every reported impediment a blocker indeed?

Let’s learn today how to deal with impediments and what practices can help us spot and remove any blockers to the team’s progress.

Video about Scrum Masters as Impediments Removers

A look into the Scrum Guide 2020

According to the Scrum Guide, Scrum Master should serve the teams, among others, by:

“Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress.”
Scrum Guide, 2020

Causing the removal doesn’t necessarily mean removing them themselves, does it?

The second and last mention of the word “impediment” comes up with the Daily Scrum:

“Daily Scrums improve communications, identify impediments, promote quick decision-making, and consequently eliminate the need for other meetings.” Scrum Guide, 2020

Hinting at us that the Daily Scrum is the perfect opportunity to surface any blockers. A tip for us to coach the teams to do so, although if an impediment arises we shouldn’t be waiting for any formal opportunity to raise it. Raise it now!

Cover photo with the author

Impediments at scale

In bigger organizations with dozens of teams, we probably use some scaling framework or at least create some syncs between teams working on the same value stream. In such cases formal opportunities to raise blockers are Scrum of Scrums — a meeting where team representatives talk about the progress, impediments, dependencies, and integrations between their teams. Depending on your organization's needs, this meeting can occur on a daily or weekly basis.

What’s an impediment?

Now, let’s define what is an impediment or blocker. It is something that prevents the team from reaching their Sprint Goal or continue their progress.

Barry Overeem in “8 stances of a Scrum Master” defines a difference between a block and an impediment: “A block affects only a single task, whereas an impediment acts like a parachute, slowing down overall progress.”

It is one one of looking at it but from my experience, the terms can be used interchangeably.

A typical example of an impediment would be:

  • An issue with the development environment preventing the teams to promote code to the next environment
  • Lack of permissions to some development tools — happens a lot with the onboarding of new team members
  • Lack of contract definition for the APIs
  • Lack of product decision to progress with the development
  • A key person on a team working on a particular initiative goes on personal leave

I find two quite opposite issues with the impediments reporting by the teams. On one hand, you might experience the teams not reporting any blockers. Irrelevant of the reasons why this may happen, as Scrum Masters our job is to help them identify the impediments and surface them. Some of the questions to ask the teams to help them identify the impediments would be:

  1. Why not five? — You can ask for a confidence level from 1 to 5 of meeting the Sprint Goal by the end of the Sprint. After the team shows their confidence, you can ask the ones with less than five (fully confident) “Why not a five?” And this way you might learn about any impediments or risks they see on the way to meet the Sprint Goal.
  2. What could speed up the value delivery? — this is another question that helps the team change their perspective.
Impediments GIF

On the other hand, I find teams getting stalled on some blockers that are easily resolved or even hardly show-stoppers. In such cases it would be interesting to ask the following questions:

  1. Are you stopped? — asking if the team is really stalled can help them find some alternative ways to move forward. A typical example in the teams depending on the backend to be finished would be to use mocked calls and proceed. Sometimes out of a perceived blocker — new learning opportunities and strategies of implementation may emerge.
  2. Do you need this right now? — this is another way of changing the team’s perspective, do you really need this now? If not, how can you proceed, knowing it will be ready in a few days?
  3. Can you work around it? — another way to boost the team’s creativity is to help them find ways to work around the issue to buy some time and unblock them.

Impediments out of team’s capability to resolve

As Barry Overeem states in “8 stances of a Scrum Master

“Something will only become an impediment when it exceeds the self-organizing capabilities of the team.”

This is when the Scrum Master steps in and takes on the impediment. Creating a ticket to IT Help to get permissions to a given tool is not something that exceeds the capabilities of the team. Scrum Master can show how to create a ticket for IT but not necessarily create it for them. We are also the teachers, we teach the teams how to spot and remove their impediments. Usually, by directing them to speak with the right person, check out some useful tool, or bringing some information to light.

This means a Scrum Master needs to know the company context and culture and move smoothly in its organizational structure. This way they have the capability to connect dots when an issue arises.

On one hand, if the same issue arises, teams will know who to speak to and where to look for a solution. On the other hand, we can also spot some patterns and improve the processes around them. If we see, for example, that the newcomers repeatedly report issues with IT permissions, we should go and try to help the IT department create a better process, or at least bring this issue to light and let them know the context i.e. how it is blocking the team’s progress.

As Scrum Masters our job is to surface and cause the removal of impediments. We can do it in various ways. I hope this article brought some more light on how Scrum Masters remove, clarify or help the team solve their impediments.

Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind and RTE in OutSystems