A scrum master has a growing list of impediments without resolution. Who would you consult and why?
Welcome to part 35 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
I’ll be honest, it’s a fact of a scrum master’s life that as they document impediments, the list just starts to grow. Sure, they will resolve X amount of impediments but there are many that fall outside of the scope and influence of the team, and they do need more work and effort to resolve.
As a scrum master, you need to pay attention to what is coming up in that list of impediments before you start talking to other people.
Not all impediments are equal.
Some will be little niggles that are fairly straightforward to resolve, whilst others will require a powerful figure in the organization to resolve on your behalf. Some may be process driven, others systemic, and others organizational policy oriented.
Why aren’t they being resolved?
As you work through your list of impediments, it’s important to document the reasons why those impediments haven’t been resolved.
In scenario A, you are swamped with other duties and responsibilities, and you just haven’t had the time to tackle these issues. Great, make a note of that, and look at how you can adapt your process to prioritize the resolution of impediments.
In scenario B, you have escalated the impediment(s) to other people within the organization and the best you can do is keep an eye on them until they are resolved. Great, make a note of that, and look at how you can schedule time in to provide a nudge or two to get things back on track.
If you are at the mercy of someone else’s intervention, that is a valuable relationship to preserve and so you can’t beat their door down insisting on resolution. It may work once, but you won’t get their help in the future, so it requires diplomacy and finesse.
In scenario C, the impediment is a big issue. It simply takes time. It may be a big change required in organizational policy and that requires a few people working together to convince the powers that be to adapt the policy (at best) or simply explore the need for change before making a decision.
In a perfect, Agile world these impediments would be resolved quickly because the organization are committed to achieving business agility, but in the real world, it simply takes time and a great deal of work to move the needle on these impediments.
So, just be aware of the reasons behind the growing list of impediments and make it clear to yourself, and others if need be, what falls within your sphere of influence and control versus the elements that fall outside of your influence and control.
That should prevent resentment growing and allow you to focus on the areas that you can control.
Who should you talk to?
Once you have identified what is in your control, you can look to address the impediments that require a coalition of sorts. A group of people that collectively address the problem and take the appropriate actions to resolve the impediments.
Make the business case.
Simply asking the executive or leadership team to resolve your problem isn’t going to work. It may be incredibly important to you, but have zero importance or urgency in their world, and so you need to create a business case that demonstrates why this issue is both relevant and valuable.
In the case of a coalition, you would work with others to gather evidence and document how this impediment is affecting multiple teams, rather than just your own team, and to present evidence of this.
A great scrum master will work with others to put that into a context that the executive and leadership teams will both understand and care about. If it’s resulting in delays, that isn’t going to move the needle.
If you are able to demonstrate the cost of delays, combined with an analysis of how this is impacting customer satisfaction and customer retention, you are more likely to get their attention and the outcome you desire.
Try to think of the impediment through the organizational lens rather than the team lens.
Dependencies on other people.
Often, the reason why your impediment is not being resolved is because it requires other people to take a specific action or series of actions.
This is a tough one.
You can’t walk around like a broken record repeatedly asking someone how far they are on your problem resolution. It has the potential to destroy that relationship and produce animosity and resentment in the future.
Going over their head and talking to their boss is not something you want to do early in the relationship because it leads to resentment and sabotage down the line.
Don’t get me wrong. If someone repeatedly does not do what they said they would do, how they said they would do it, within the time frame committed, I would take it to the next level and escalate it beyond their sphere of influence and control.
But it isn’t something I recommend that you do initially.
As a scrum master, you are only going to get people invested in helping you and your team if you grow respect, credibility, and trust. It is your degree of influence that makes all the difference.
So, before the problem arises, you need to be working on developing strong, mutually beneficial working relationships throughout the organization. Sure, not every one of those will be 100% productive 100% of the time, but you need to cultivate and nurture relationships.
The more beneficial it is to work with you, and the greater the rapport you have with others, the more effective you will be in helping your team remove impediments and achieve their goals.
You need to work effectively with others, and you need to discover how you can help others achieve their goals and objectives. Doing this, consistently, makes other people want to help you achieve your goals and objectives.
So, as a scrum master, make relationship development and growing your network and influence an incredibly important part of your professional development.
In the event that you approach a certain person for help, and they consistently don’t help you, document this and build the evidence.
When it does come time to go over their head, you need to have already developed a relationship with the person you are going to, and if they ask you why you aren’t working through the person that you should, you have the evidence to support your request for their assistance.
It isn’t perfect, but it does happen in the corporate world and you are better served being prepared for that day than stuttering and making excuses in the moment. You can’t avoid that the person you are dealing with isn’t reliable and so you need to prepare a strategy to deal with that.
Do so patiently, meticulously, and with the objective of giving that person every chance to contribute. If they continue to prove unreliable, you have your business case but you have also given them more than enough opportunities to do their job.
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