Visible & Invisible Impediments

Visible & Invisible Impediments

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I was in one of our Moose Herd sessions the other day and one of the Moose (or is it Meese) brought up a scenario around impediments. The topic was—how to encourage (inspire, make) the team take ownership of resolving their impediments.

The question elicited a wonderful Herd discussion that felt like it helped the questioner. But as it went on, I began to remember that I’d historically formed a view of 4-Types of Impediments that I hadn’t thought about in a long time or articulated. Thus, this post.

The first thing is that there might be more than four that some of you can come up with. These are just some that have helped me decide how to describe and act on them uniquely. I like drilling down into different types because it adds contextual flavor to handling the wide variety of challenges we aggregate into the word impediment.

1 – Team Impediments

I think the Scrum Guide refers to these as impediments the Scrum Master should be helping their teams resolve. They are within the span of control of the team and can usually be “struck down” quickly and easily. Or relatively easily.

They are also easily observed as such and often emerge from the retrospective or simply by observing team execution. I often recommend that Scrum Masters maintain a list of their current impediments and make them visible within and outside their teams.

Common examples:

2 – Organizational or System Impediments

These are fundamentally different than team impediments. They are more widespread, systemic, cultural, and holistic. They are much harder to address and usually take much longer to resolve.

They are often, almost always, outside the span of control for an individual Scrum Master or coach to resolve independently. Sure, their teams are paying the price for them, but so are most or all other teams.

I often suggest that Scrum Masters & Coaches form an organizational impediment board that captures these more systemic impediments. It often includes things like—

  1. When was the impediment first noticed?

  2. What is the business impact of it? How many teams are impacted?

  3. Who is working to resolve the impediment?

  4. What is the next experiment we’re trying to reduce/resolve it?

Posting this in a highly visible (information radiator) location so that all of them are fully transparent. I also like to celebrate widely when one of these is removed.

Common examples:

  • Priorities change during each sprint due to new sales and customer commitments.

  • Psychology safety is low, causing the team to succumb to organizational pressure and commit to too much WIP and work.

3 – Leadership Impediments

Now we’re getting into some subtlety where finesse is required. These impediments can surface from the folks leading the initiative or “paying the bills,” if you will. The other dangerous thing here is they probably lack self-awareness of how their actions and behaviors impede their agile initiatives.

If you’re a Scrum Master, you might want to avoid tackling these. I also wouldn’t advise making these public or transparent out of respect for the leaders. Instead, I’d note them as I did in #2, but I’ll keep it privately in my journal.

One strategy I often leverage is carefully delegating these to a more seasoned agile coach. Or even engaging peer leaders as change agent partners to coach their peers from a more empathetic perspective. Again, these are careful conversations with people I trust and with the experience to handle the impediment with nuanced respect and care.

Don’t get me wrong; these are usually as negatively impactful (if not more so) than your organization or system impediments.

Common examples:

  • The leadership team is pressuring the Scrum Masters to measure individual team member productivity and commitment.

  • A specific leader, a very senior CTO, is constantly swooping into the teams, giving them work and telling them how to do it. They’ve taken the empowerment almost entirely away from all of their teams.

4 – Hidden Impediments

There are two types of impediments in this category, first are the ones I’m taking action on behind the scenes. I’m intentionally working them, but with more care and subtlety. I may simply be making folks aware of them. Or, from a system coaching perspective, revealing them and their impact on the system itself but then leveraging patience and disconnecting a bit from direct ownership and action.

The other category here is when the impediment, dare I say it, is me. They’re personal impediments that I’ve discovered in my self-awareness activities. For example, what if my skill gaps prevent me from showing up the way I need to? Or, if I’m getting triggered too much in specific situations and losing my open-mindedness and independent view?

As I recommended in #3, most of my actions in this area focus on my journal and discretely working on the issue. Again, patience and perseverance are keys here.

Common examples:

  • The organizational culture is one where everyone operates at a 5 x WIP level, which creates intolerable churn, chaos, and burnout. This is what’s “rewarded.”

  • I’ve just returned from a 2-day Scrum Master CSM class and have been asked to serve three teams. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Before I wanted to “hit send” on this article, I saw the following post on LinkedIn from Duncan Maddox. It strongly makes the point that—

“People are not impediments.”

and I wanted to explore it a bit as a close to this article.

I agree with Duncan that we shouldn’t identify people as impediments. But that being said, their behavior can be an impediment. And teasing the two apart isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

I would also recommend reading the comments to Duncan’s post. But I sincerely want to thank Duncan and the universe for reminding me of this—before I hit send…

The most critical points of this post are to—

  1. Recognize the wide variety of impediments that are emerging within your context,

  2. Capture them and begin “doing something” about them,

  3. Realize that you don’t need to resolve everything personally, but guide evolutionary progress across them.

Another message is that you should be VERY willing to ask for help with your impediments.

And finally, get more comfortable with making your impediments (and their impact) visible as broadly and clearly as possible.

Stay agile my friends,


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