Definition of an Impediment?

Note: I’ve written a post with my updated thinking on this point.  I recommend that one; this one is mostly useful if you want to see history of my freaked-out thinking. 🙂


Our Project Management Department is making a role transition to Agile Coach from what is probably best described as Agile Project Manager.  One of our top priorities has been moving away from the center of the fray.  Where we used to serve as hubs of daily transactions, we instead now help team members solve them problems themselves, removing ourselves as unnecessary inter-mediators wherever possible.  Impediments are one place where this is playing itself out.  We had previously reached an extreme, where team members learned to rely on us to the point of their own helplessness, and we slowed the process both because of the inherent drag of bottlenecks but because we were the weakest link in the chain in terms of technical knowledge.

In many ways, things are improved.  Requests that would take days to make their way through a telephone chain with me as central point now get resolved quickly.  But now I wonder: where is the correct balance?  How do we know when we have swung too far the other way?

Since in most cases in our organization Agile Coach translates to Scrum Master, I turned to the Scrum guide.  There it is: part of the Scrum Master’s service to the development team is “removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress”.   It does not say “removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress–providing that they are sufficiently daunting that removing them does not undermine the team’s sense of being able to solve problems on their own”.  Do I turn around and intervene on every impediment?  Certainly not; that just takes me back to my old habits as central operator.  But how do I draw the line?  At what point is an impediment large enough, hard enough to resolve, that I as Scrum Master step in and take the reins from the team?  Maybe I handle an impediment that “blocks team for more than x hours” or “requires team member to contact someone outside the team”?  Right now, I am seeing systemic benefits (greater autonomy, fewer bottlenecks, more efficient resolution, team growth) from letting the team resolve issues that cross both of the those thresholds.  Or is the problem with my definition of “impediment”?  Is there a difference between “impediment the team mentions at daily stand-up” (and that the team probably solves on their own) and systemic impediment (that is so huge and external to the team that I put on my change agent cape and go smash it)?  Or maybe our organization has simply developed an extremely inclusive definition of impediments (“My pen ran out of ink, I’m blocked”), and that simply letting things go until “real” impediments arise is the answer.  But if that’s it, how do I know a “real” impediment when I see it?

I don’t expect a formula.  I know this will take case-by-case judgment, but the contradiction I see is so stark that I am having trouble making that judgment.   Can anyone help me resolve this contradiction?  Or come up with a rough rule of thumb?  Or tell me how I have it all wrong?

4 thoughts on “Definition of an Impediment?

  1. Okay. I’ve talked to various people, done more reading, and received wise counsel. In the end, my conclusion is: I should stop freaking out about this. Besides recognizing that this theoretical knot was a symptom of my high anxiety, I have concluded that much of the answer is right in the title of my post. It depends how you define impediment.

    In writing the original post, I suspected as much, but something new has dawned on me: rather than limiting the list of things that fall under that definition, I should expand it to anything that gets in the team’s way, no matter how minor. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Won’t this build reliance on me? Go against everything I said above? Create a feedback loop ending in learned helplessness?

    No. Part of my job is to remove impediments for the team. But how I remove them is up to me. Let’s say a team member says “I can’t add a new task to the board, we’re out of blue stickies.” Going to get the stickies would be a bad move. Instead, asking “Have you checked the supply cabinet?” does two things: it suggests to the team member that it is in their power to move forward (woohoo autonomy!), and it begins a conversation that might ultimately reveal a true external impediment without jumping to that conclusion. I am still removing the impediment, it’s just that the impediment was “team member didn’t know they could get these things themselves” instead of “team member is out of blue stickies”.

    The simple phrase that unlocks this for me: sometimes, a team member’s impediment is in their own mind. It is up to me as a coach to recognize that, to consider the details of the situation and the particular abilities of the individual, and to decide how to help. By correctly balancing my response between “mentor seizing teachable moment” and “wrecking ball change agent clearing a roadblock”, I can honor my commitment to removing impediments and bolstering team autonomy at the same time.

    Of course, I still might be a little crazy on this point, so anyone should feel free to set me straight!

  2. Love the “wrecking ball change agent clearing a roadblock” descriptor! One of my very favorite coaches was reviewing a bulleted list I wrote to describe what a Scrum Master does and, of course, impediment removal was on there. He offered a modification: “Helps remove impediments the team cannot resolve themselves.” I always liked that and use it to this day. Nice blog! Looking forward to your future posts!

  3. Thanks for the post. Personally I try to always ask the question “What do you think we should do?”. The way that gets answered is usually a good indicator of how much I need to assist or if I can just walk away and next time ask “How did that work out for you?”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s