Definition of an Impediment…Revisited

A while back, I wrote a post while I was–well, if you read the post, you’ll see I was freaking out about what it means to be someone who removes impediments for a team.  I’ve since calmed down, and I wanted to share conclusions I’d reached through my daily observations and practice.

I knew I was responsible for “removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress“, but I worried about undermining the team’s self-sufficiency if I simply removed all impediments.  I therefore thought that I needed a definition of what truly constituted an impediment justifying my removal services.

The problem is that I had mistakenly thought of “removal” as meaning only “intervening on behalf of the team”. Since such intervention could indeed rob the team of a chance to solve their own problem, I concluded I had to pick and choose.  Since then, I’ve changed my view of “removal to mean “helping the team navigate the impediment”.  By doing so, I’ve freed myself to help every time while simultaneously supporting team autonomy.

Sometimes, helping does mean full-on intervention, where I act as wrecking ball change agent to clear a truly external impediment.  More often, though, I strive to help the team get past the impediment in a way that makes them able to do so without my help the next time.

In trying to follow this guideline, I have found it important to discern the precise nature of the impediment.  For example:

  • “I have an idea for an activity I think would help in backlog grooming, but I don’t know who is supposed to enact those.”  I could just say “Feel free to bring it up”, but if I can help the person understand that they should always feel free to bring up their ideas, that gets closer to the true impediment here, which relates to thinking they need to await permission.
  • There’s no point in escalating the problem with the server: the problem has been around forever.”  There are two impediments here: failure of organization to respond to team needs (external) and learned helplessness (internal).  If I just run off and fix the problem, I may have addressed the former, but I’ve done little toward the latter.
  • “It’s Jack’s job to update the wiki page, and he’s out.”  I could ask, “Is there any reason that you can’t update the wiki page?”  That might get the person past the immediate impediment.  But the greater impediment here is the adherence to over-strict role definitions.  Might it be better if I asked “Why is that just Jack’s job?”

My new conclusion (until it evolves again!): Always help remove impediments.  Just be careful about how you do so.

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