Four Common Scrum Impediments and Mistakes

March 10, 20164 min

“Scrum will highlight every deficiency and impediment that the enterprise has so the enterprise can fix them and change into [the best product development] organization [in its market].”  Ken Schwaber

As teams and businesses adopt Scrum and Agile to their enterprise, they will encounter an entire host of bumps, roadblocks, obstacles and impediments to becoming an industry leader in their market.  Unless the organization is already a market leader (which begs the question “why are you interested in Scrum?”), almost everything they did prior to the adoption of Scrum acts as a deterrent to becoming a market leader because, quoting Ken Schwaber again, “everything that was hard in waterfall…now has to be done every iteration and [that] is incredibly hard.”

All of the wasteful practices that are derived from, and support, the industrial mindset inhibit the fast flow of value to the customer.  Each Sprint, participants are confronted by just how wasteful the mindset, and the practices, are on the Team and the business.  This makes people feel uncomfortable.  There are many reasons for this discomfort, but in order to become a market leader the participants will have to change many of the habits that brought them market success.  If the enterprise does not attend to resolving these gaps, they eventually drag down the Scrum adoption and put the goal of being a market leader at risk.

In the old days, we used to call this list of barriers, hurdles, obstacles, snares, deterrents, blockers and impediments an Impediments Backlog.  There were just two requirements for the Impediments Backlog: the impediments are written down and publicly available for anyone to review.  Once we have a public list, then the impediments can be addressed, prioritized by business leaders and people can be held accountable if the items have been fixed (or not).  Since we are using the term backlog to describe this list of obstacles, these reasons echo why the Product Backlog must also be publicly visible.

So what are some common failure modes around impediments?

  1. No Impediments Backlog: I don’t see Impediment Backlogs discussed much anymore in the Scrum community and I rarely see them when I visit clients.  I certainly stopped talking about them for while, but as I expand my perspective beyond working with single Teams an Impediments Backlog makes more sense as we try to use Scrum across multiple locations, multiple Teams and the entire business.  If you do not have an Impediments Backlog, create one today!
  2. Impediments focus on symptoms: when I do see an Impediments Backlog, it tends to focus on symptoms rather than root cause(s).  In these cases, the symptoms tend to reflect local concerns of the Team, so fixing the symptom is not going to make the problem go away.  Often times, local symptoms mask an impediment that affects multiple Teams, so addressing the symptom is merely palliative.  I recommend that you use games like the Five Whys or Help Me Understand, from the book Gamestorming, to identify the root cause(s) of the issue.  If you identify the root cause, you increase the likelihood of seeing the greater impact of an impediment.
  3. Cannot describe the business impact of an impediment: in order to create a sense of urgency to remove an impediment you need to get the data showing why the impediment is bad.  If you are asking senior leaders and decision-makers to change something about the enterprise, be prepared connect the elimination of an impediment to an increase in something a senior leader and executive cares about.  IME, you can get their attention when you talk about how addressing the root cause of an impediment can increase quality, customer satisfaction, revenue, time-to-market, employee satisfaction, growth, productivity and\or market differentiation.
  4. No investment by senior leaders to fix impediments: in his most recent book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the TimeJeff Sutherland shared a story of how Medco used an Impediments Backlog to hit a critical market date.  Their approach was very simple.  When the senior managers of their transition team met, they discussed any new impediment(s) escalated to their level by the Scrum Teams (if the Scrum Teams could fix the impediment themselves, they fixed it).  By the end of the meeting, each new impediment had a senior manager’s name next to it with the expectation the impediment would be resolved by close-of-business Thursday!  I have another client who has a team of senior leaders called the “Blocker Busters” whose sole focus is to remove waste and get to the root cause of enterprise level impediments.  For these types of teams to work, reach up as high as you can in the organization to find people who care about the issues and have the power to fix any sort of blocker affecting the Scrum Teams.