So you know by now, the ScrumMaster controls chaos by championing the Scrum process - each step in the process was created to make development more orderly and focused while also allowing for special attention to continuous improvement and value-driven delivery. In addition to helping the team focus on meeting a product vision one iteration, and day, at a time, the the ScrumMaster is also playing the role of change agent. How? One of the ScrumMaster’s primary responsibilities is to remove obstacles from the team so that they may deliver on their goals. 

What is an obstacle, exactly? I’ll use a general description: an obstacle (or impediment) is anything blocking the team from completing its work in an efficient, productive manner. I could have stopped without adding ‘efficient, productive’  as adjectives, but I think these words are very important because agile teams should be looking for ways to constantly improve how they are delivering product increments. 

When we educate ScrumMasters, we spend a lot of time discussing what impediments actually are, how to make them visible and how to facilitate team members to feel empowered to remove obstacles themselves. But sometimes the team encounters an obstacle that it cannot get around. This kind of item is then owned by the ScrumMaster who will help the team resolve it. Here are a couple of obvious and not-so-obvious obstacles.

Perhaps the team brought up in the retrospective that they collectively don’t understand how to do unit test-driven development but they have a desire to learn more about practice as they’ve heard it can improve quality.  The ScrumMaster would encourage the team to discuss the value of TDD with the product owner and request a little time in the next sprint to explore various unit TDD frameworks in order to figure out what may work for them. The ScrumMaster might also look into getting the right hands-on expertise to help the team - in the form of an internal coach or consultant.  The ScrumMaster, by helping the team take the next step toward improving quality, is removing an obstacle (lack of knowledge) andalso keeping the team focused on incrementally improving the results of each sprint. 

Sometimes obstacles aren’t spoken; rather, they are observed. For example, when facilitating a sprint planning meeting, the ScrumMaster might observe that one team member keeps shutting down another in conversation. The ScrumMaster will make a mental note to change her verbal andnon-verbal cues; sometimes, just making eye contact and a subtle nodding gesture toward a person will encourage him to go ahead and say what he was thinking.  A ScrumMaster realizes that the best results come from a truly collaborative team; anything that gets in the way of that is an obstacle. In this case, the obstacle is missing information and that single missing piece of information could be just what the team needs in order to move ahead. An obstacle like this may be corrected on the spot, or the ScrumMaster might make a literal note of it to have a one-on-one with the offending team member. 

An obstacle I routinely observe when coaching teams is the lack of perceived value in the daily standup meeting. The complaint is that usually team members don't want to standup everyday; rather, they'd only like to attend once or twice per week. The usual root cause of this problem is that these 'teams' really aren't teams; instead, they are a collection of individuals working on their own independent tasks. There is no value in the daily standup for them - they aren't interested in what anyone else is doing, they're only doing their part, and the daily standup feels like a boring status meeting run by the ScrumMaster. And I don't blame them. How to get a team to get value out of the daily standup? Encourage them to be a team. Encourage them to share their work and to work together toward a common goal. Remind them of the product vision and the goals for the sprint. Set limits to work in progress so that very important stories are completed before less important ones. Encourage the team to run the daily standup itself and to talk to each other in the meeting (don't 'report' to the ScrumMaster)! There are tons of techniques for running an effective daily standup that we'll share in a later blog post.  

When I’m playing the role of ScrumMaster, I like to keep an actual Impediments Backlog. This impediment backlog is comprised of issues that come up in the daily standup meeting, items that surface during retrospectives, as well as obstacles from my own observations when interacting with the team and other stakeholders. This list is maintained just like any backlog - the most pressing issues are at the top. Sometimes, I’ll track ideas that I have for improvement, even if the team does not surface it themselves; these ideas are placeholders for a rainy day when I want to pick up a new improvement initiative with the team.