Treating “Impedimentia”

February 26, 2009

dr-julius-hibbert

Why is it so hard to come up with impediments sometimes? I know that impediments are all around me – literally everywhere I look. So why is it that when we do the daily standup and answer the three questions, nobody seems to have any impediments? Obviously the team is having the same problem that I am. I can’t blame them, sometimes impediments are hard to find.

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for why no impediments come up in the standup.
“Everything is fine.”
“We’ve tackled all the big impediments.”
“We just don’t have any – we’re good!”
I don’t buy any of these answers. You shouldn’t either. I have a few theories to explain why impediments are so hard to discern. It has to do with context, perspective, aclimatization and complacency.

Missing Context
Sometimes we need to have some sort of target to shoot for so that we can recognize our impediments. If I go the to the gun range and use a blank sheet of paper for a target, it will be very hard to tell how accurately I’m shooting. The shots may be grouped well (precision), but it would be hard to tell if they were going to hit what I was aiming for (accuracy). If I paint a bullseye on the target, now I have enough contextual information to judge the accuracy of my shots. So it goes with impediments. We need a metaphorical target that we can compare our objectives to in order to see their impediments.
What would be the equivalent of a target for a set of user stories. It might be a detailed set of task cards associated with those stories. After all, if there are no task details then it’s hard to know if you are blocked on a given issue or not.

Perspective
Maybe we are just looking at things wrong. Perhaps we need to change the way we view the objectives we are trying to achieve. Maybe we should take the advice of Matthew May in “The Elegant Solution”. Instead of asking, “What can we improve?” Perhaps we should be asking “What is blocking perfection?”
To me, the thing that alters my perspective the most is when I’m being a perfectionist. I’ll admit that perfectionism is a distorted perpective, but it can be very useful when we are seeking impediments. When I am in perfectionist mode, I am very sensitive to anything that doesn’t go exactly right.

Acclimatization
Another factor that helps make finding impediments difficult is the fact that we just get used to having them around. It’s kind of like the proverbial frog in a pot of hot water. You know how it goes – the water gets hotter and hotter until the poor frog gets cooked. So to there are a lot of little irritants that get in our way, but for some reason we take them for granted. It’s just how “things are done” We get so used to jumping through the flaming hoops that we stop seeing them entirely. How could it possibly be done any different? Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to help identify these sorts of impediments. Bring someone else into your team for a day. Pay attention when they say, “Why all the flaming hoops?”

dr-julius-hibbert
Complacency
Is it possible that we just stop caring about things like impediments? Are we just lazy? I’ll answer that: yes, sometimes. As much as I might like to maintain otherwise, I do have days where seeking out impediments to my projects is not at the top of my priority list. I’ve also seen the case where teams neglected to address the impediments that they did find. Not fixing impediments is the quickest way that I can think of to discourage a team from identifying them. Why bother?
There are probably a lot more reasons why impediments are hard to see, but these strike me as the biggest in the bunch. They give us important clues as to how we might start to address our own collective “impedimentia” by taking action to address these issues.


Classifying Impediments

February 25, 2009

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Categorizing things can be a very useful tool for understanding the world around us. I watch my 2 year old daughter doing it all the time. She points at a robin in a tree and chirps, “Birdy!” Then she sees an eagle in a book, points and says, “Birdy!” I guess Homo sapiens must be pretty good at drawing these kinds of associations, because it’s apparent that we start doing it at a very early age. We use categorization to discriminate the different things we encounter in the world.

Recently I have been trying to look at impediments with “new” eyes. If you keep an impediments log you can see patterns arise and common themes become apparent as you review impediments with similar causes. When I first started tracking my impediments I used a spreadsheet to keep track of them. I was trying to create a history of impediments that I could review and reflect on both by myself and with the team. At first, I just started out recording the name of the impediment and tracking whether or not it was resolved. Soon however, I started adding more categories to the list of impediments. I wanted to track when I first became aware of the impediment, and when it was resolved, I wanted to categorize the impediments so that I could track themes – impediments that might share a common origin. I also started to track the root cause of the impediment – what had occurred (or not occurred) that had led to the impediment in the first place?

As I tracked my impediments over time, the list of categories grew longer and longer. Here is the list of impediment categories that I track today:

Missing dependencies: This could be software, hardware, or people dependencies. All too often something needs to happen, but something required to make it happen is missing. I want to order a burger at the drive through, but there is no one to take my order at the window. I picked up the idea for this category from Matthew May’s excellent book, “The Elegant Solution”. He outlines a lot of the lean strategies used at Toyota and the principles that support them. In one chapter he categorizes many different kinds of waste that can be found in any process. It was reading this chapter where I had a “eureka!” moment: impediments = waste!

Defects: This one is pretty obvious most of the time. Something is broken. There is a bug in the system. Something isn’t working as intended. The heater in my car seat stopped working. The bugs assigned to the team in triage. The little plastic lid won’t snap on to the top of my latte and stay.

Not enough time: The story of my life. Usually this indicates a scheduling or commitment problem.

Interruption: Do you have your email client setup to alert you as soon as a new email arrives? That’s an interruption. Interruptions can be obvious, like when the phone rings, or they can be subtle, like the way we manage our email.

Incomplete Work: Half done work can be as bad, if not worse than work that was never started at all.

Waiting: This category is everywhere. Try keeping a notepad with you and noting all the times that you wait during the day – for anything. You may be surprised at how much waiting is going on in your day.

Miscommunication: Communication between team mates – between teams – between silos…

Decisions not made: Organizational dysfunctions are impediments – sometimes the toughest impediments to resolve. The good news is that they are also frequently the kinds of impediments that once resolved, deliver the most reward.

Poor Maintenance: OK, I admit it – I was thinking of my car when I came up with this category. Without revealing too much, I realized that there are a lot of things that need maintenance in my life, and they all need to run smoothly (my car, my house, the dishwasher, the servers that run our software, etc.)

Disorganization & Clutter: Anyone who has seen my desk knows where this category of impediments came from.

Over commitment: Sometimes impediments arise from the very fact that we are just trying to accomplish too much. The good news is that this category of impediment is easy to resolve – just back off the throttle.

Lack of control/Discipline: This encompasses those impediments that arise because of something that wasn’t done. Sometimes there is an established process that isn’t followed – that can be a problem. Other times the process itself can be the impediment.

Forgotten: Alright, so my memory isn’t what it used to be. OK, my memory was never that great. The point is, forgetting to do things can be a big impediment to getting things done.

Distractions: email, web browsing, and the three martini lunch – It’s amazing I get anything done at all. It pains me to think that many of the things that we get such pleasure from can also impede use from achieving our goals (such pleasurable impediments). This category of impediments is the hardest for me to see.

This is by no means an exhaustive set of impediment categories. I’m quite sure that there are many more.  The categories can overlap too. An impediment can fit into multiple categories at once (i.e. waiting and decisions not made seem a natural combination).

There is one other benefit of categorizing impediments that I am only now starting to realize – categories provide a language for talking about the impediments for your team. It’s a lot like patterns in the respect that simply giving a name to a class of impediment allows us to discuss the issue as a group without getting locked into specifics. It provides a level of abstraction for the discussion – and dealing with abstractions is where we make unexpected connections to other solutions.

I see working with categories as a tool that we can use to help remind ourselves of the things that we should be looking for when we are seeking to reveal the impediments around us. Categorizing is something that we do very well as human beings. Scientists have been doing it for a long time (Kings Play Chess On Fine Grain Sand). On a cognitive level, categorizing our environment helps to frame how we think about the problems we are facing. It allows us to better discern the similarities and differences in the objects under study.

We need to take a scientific, empirical approach to working with impediments. Categorize them any way you choose – the very act of making the categories will help you to discover new impediments. Uncovering impediments is uncovering problems and it is in the solutions to those problems where you find innovative ideas for yourself and your team.


Defining Impediments

February 21, 2009

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I have a confession to make: I’m a scrum master and I can’t see impediments. It’s terrible – I know I should be able to see them, but somehow they pass right by me every day without my noticing them. Well, maybe “pass right by” is not the right way to put it. Actually, those of us with impediment blindness (I have a name for it: “Impedimentia”) we clamber over the challenges in life’s little obstacle course without out even recognizing they are there. In some sense, my fellow impedimentia sufferers are working really hard to get through the day without even realizing that life could be a lot easier.

Recently I have become determined to find a way to overcome my condition. The first question that arises is “What exactly is an impediment?” Perhaps starting with a definition would help. If I run to the dictionary, I get the following definition:

Impediment: 1.The fact of impeding or condition of being impeded; hindrance, obstruction 2.Something that impedes the function or health of the body; a (physical) defect; an affection or malady


It’s actually kind of a funny word when you look at it. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure that I really use the word impediment all that often. I’m more likely to talk about “blocking issues” or “things holding you up”. Well to be honest, just knowing the definition of an impediment really doesn’t help me much. I know what they are, but I still can’t see them. It’s like knowing the definition of what an elephant is, but not being able to see them (elephantia?). Now that I think of it, it’s too bad impediments aren’t more like elephants – there would probably be a lot fewer project managers out there! Sadly, that would likely include me too.

In truth, much like actual blindness, there are varying degrees of incapacity. In the same way that many people are impaired by blindness, but still have some vision – I also have partial impedimentia. I do see some impediments. I usually see them if they are as big as a truck, with neon letters on the side, proceeded by heralds blowing trumpets. Anything less and I’m likely to miss them. I sometimes recognize impediments long after they have passed by. It’s sort of an “Oh…that’s why it hurt so much” reaction. The point is that I do see some impediments, probably many fewer than most people, but I do see them – even if after the fact.

So in an effort to get better at identifying impediments, I’ve decided to keep a log of the impediments in my life. I review the log on a daily basis to learn more about these creatures we call impediments. By recording them in a daily log, I’m able to capture my impediments under my metaphorical microscope and examine them more closely. My intent is to create a catalog of impediments. I’m compiling a beastiary of these creatures both common and exotic.

Friday

  • Too tired to work effectively
  • Traffic jam on the way to work
  • Late for a meeting
  • Not able to contact manager
  • Child refuses to get dressed
  • Not prepared for meeting
  • No time to work on committed project
  • Not allowed to join email group
  • Not enough time to exercise
  • Eating too much

Like any good scientist, it’s tempting to start creating a taxonomy of the creatures that you are studying. So I’m tempted to start categorizing the impediments that I encounter in my log. Some are hairy with great, big eyes. Others have multiple clutching tendrils and sharp, pointy teeth. Some look suspiciously like CEOs.

If I go back and look at the list I created and start looking for patterns, I see categories that look something like this:

  • Delays, waiting (traffic jam, late for meeting, procrastination)
  • Not enough time (project work, exercise)
  • Over consumption (over eating, too many committed tasks)
  • Exhaustion (too tired, etc.)

These are categories that apply to me. They might not be the same ones that apply to you (you may not procrastinate nearly as much as I do). However if I take these categories and use them as a check list, I can review my day and inspect it for impediments. After all, I don’t necessarily need to recognize impediments the moment that they occur. I’d be happy to discover them the same day that I encounter them. That would be a huge step forward for someone with a bad case of impedimentia. So I instituted a personal impediment review at the end of each day.

In my review, I look for impediments in a couple of places. Microsoft Outlook is a good start (or whatever calendar you may keep). I start with the calendar and review all of the meetings that I had for the day. Were any delayed or postponed? Was I on time to the meeting? Was I prepared to make a useful contribution to the discussion? Were there any noteworthy events that occurred during the meeting, fistfights, altercations? Then I move to the real impediments gold mine: my email inbox. Eureka! Aside from dealing with the daily deluge of email (impediment #1), I have every issue that was sent to me during the day – impediments galore!

So I record all of these impediments in my log. This gives me a couple of things:

  1. A catalog of common impediments (a source of ideas for things to look for)
  2. The daily frequency of impediments I find (is my impedimentia getting better or worse?)
  3. A place to catalog the types of impediments that seem to plague me

This daily reflection helps to crank up my sensitivity to the impediments that I encounter every day. As I review my daily catalog of impediments, I find impediments that are vague, impediments that actually contain many little impediments.

All of this reflecting and journaling reminds me of Ben Franklin, the original self improvement fanatic. In his autobiography he describes how he kept track of his habits and his…impediments? I wonder if he had impedimentia too. Probably not.