Managers : Impediments

It should not be confusing how to manage in Scrum (agile).

Let’s put a scope on this. We are talking about the management of innovation, using Teams. Not the management of BAU or regular production or whatever your firm calls that. I am less sure these principles (below) apply in those cases, but I do think they apply with innovation teams.

First: you have a Team that should be a real Team. And they should mostly self-manage.

Second: as a manager, ask a few questions, like this:

1. How is it going?

Then listen carefully. Don’t talk, listen.

2. Am I (or is ‘management’) an impediment to the Team?

It is remarkable how often, in trying to help, we managers actually get in the way. We distract, we interrupt, we just don’t help.

OTOH, sometimes things that actually are helpful are not understood in that way. If the Team does not understand (in your opinion), at least listen carefully to their opinion. They might actually be correct.

Always recognize that management is ‘overhead’ and by definition is in some way ‘getting in the way’ of doing the real work of innovation.

3. Where is your public impediment list?

Review it with them. You might suggest impediments they should consider. You want to see a good, current list of the top 20 ways they think they can improve.

They should always have at least 20 ways to improve, unless they can document that they are the best Scrum team in the world.  In that case, give them a day off.

BTW, removing impediments does not mean working harder.  It is so easy for them to interpret what you say as ‘work harder.’

4. Let’s discuss the impediments you have fixed lately (in the last sprint) and how much impact that has had.

Comment favorably on the progress they have made. Reward that behavior. Ask them: having done 20-20 hindsight, how might it be better going forward?

And imply that they focus on impediments that, when fixed, will improve velocity (team productivity).  Not just annoying things, but things that will make them proud that they are producing more, faster.

5. Are there any impediments you would like me to help you with?

This is THE essential question.

In fact, the answer always must be ‘yes’, and the only real question is deciding which one. It probably will be one where the manager is especially competent to help. And then, more competent than the Team itself to fix.

6. Is the Team spending enough time ‘sharpening the saw’? What percentage is that?

“Sharpening the saw’ is from that famous story in Covey’s Seven Habits book.

Human beings ‘naturally’ never spend enough time sharpening the saw. They seem to be thinking that it is better to just do the work with brute force. Perhaps in the middle of a battle, hand-to-hand combat, that is the right thing to do. But not with our knowledge work.

I recommend that the Team spend about 1/7th of its ‘power’ (time) on getting better (aka fixing impediments).

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Some notes:

The public impediment list will be prioritized, and the priorities will change with time, perhaps daily.

The order should include cost-benefit analysis, at least to the degree they can do it. You might need to help them think that through. Often they have little or no experience in doing that. Political cost is among the costs to consider. We expect managers (and teams) to take political risks, in a measured way.

You might not agree with the priorities, especially at first. Discuss that with them, without using your power.  Teach them to do it better themselves rather than do it for them.

Don’t worry about the priorities too much. Even if you do them ‘out of order’, a significant part of the benefit of fixing impediments is that the things they care about got fixed.  And maybe you did some of that.  It has a huge motivational impact. You are saying through action that their work is important.

Now, I am not saying spend tons of money just to have them ‘feel good’. But do not ignore the motivational factor.

There are many, many, more things to say about impediments. I hope for many of you, these notes are a good start.

I think if you encourage ‘removing impediments’ in these ways, you will be surprised how much better the Team becomes.

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