Helping overcome impediments between Managers and Agile Teams

Agile teams often experience difficulties when they have to deal with problems that occur outside the team and may require management involvement to resolve. I’ve seen several Agile teams lose motivation when they question whether managers are really committed to helping the team. Often the team struggle to be open with the manager about the perceived problems or how they could jointly come up with ways to improve the situation.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario based on my experience:

Mike, the Development Manager at a small company, asked Alice, an Agile coach, to come in and help introduce Agile to his organisation, starting with the key development team.

Alice ran some introductory workshops with Mike and the whole team. At the end of these sessions Mike told everyone “I’m really excited about the potential of Agile to help our organisation, starting with this team.  I want to do all that I can to support it”

When Alice came back to the organisation a few weeks later she found that the team were beginning to express doubts about how committed Mike was to adopting Agile. Mike had stopped coming to the daily stand-ups and worse, he wasn’t helping them remove the blockers they experienced with tasks that required a specialist user experience designer in another team.

The team told Alice: “Mike’s not doing anything to remove the delays caused by other teams. He says he supports Agile, but when we need him to help us out, he isn’t there for us. Yet again, the problem is with management! There’s no point us doing this Agile stuff if we’re not supported”

Alice agreed with the team Mike’s role is to help the team by overcoming organisational impediments. She decided to encourage Mike to attend the team’s daily stand-up where she hoped he’d recognise that the reasons for blocks which were causing delays on the tasks were things that he should help with. If Mike didn’t see this for himself, Alice would then model this behaviour for Mike by asking “What would it take to remove the blockers on those tasks? Would you benefit from help on those?” If this fails then Alice would be more direct to Mike by asking “What’s your view on talking to the team about the blockers and seeing how you could help?”

What’s your view of Alice’s approach to helping in this situation? Here’s my view – I welcome your thoughts if you see it differently.

  • Alice seems to assume that what the team complain about is valid – that Mike is not helping resolve the causes of the external blockages – without clarifying what the team have said or done to raise the issues they see with Mike. Alice seems to assume that the team’s complaint is valid without checking if the team have raised their issue with Mike.
  • Alice doesn’t ask the team for the reasoning behind the assumptions they seem to have made, firstly, that Mike is aware that he isn’t helping them, and secondly, he has deliberately chosen not to help them out. Alice doesn’t ask the team why they seem to think that Mike has deliberately chosen not to help them.  It would be useful to focus on directly observable data – what the team has seen Mike do or say that lead them to their views?
  • The next question is what have the team said or done to make Mike aware of the situation? Have they been explicit and described their point of view? If not, what, if anything prevented them from doing so?
  • Alice seems to jump straight to taking action to help the team out, and in doing so, taking responsibility for them, rather than discussing her approach with the team and giving them an opportunity to handle the situation more effectively.
  • Alice’s choice to ‘model’ the ‘correct’ behaviour for Mike, without explicitly saying that this is what she is doing, is an easing-in approach with the manager which may be based on assumptions that the Mike couldn’t handle being told directly. It’s likely that Mike will work out that Alice isn’t being direct with him, but rather than guessing what Alice’s view is, Mike is likely to feel puzzled or confused about what Alice is holding back.

Here are a couple of suggestions for how I think this situation could be dealt with more effectively.

Adopt a mindset of curiosity
First off, it’s worth trying to adopt a mindset of curiosity rather than certainty about the team’s view of the issue and the meaning and intent behind Mike’s behaviour. It’s common for the team in this situation to believe that they see the whole picture, that Mike is either lacking the right perspective or being deliberately difficult and the team’s task is to illustrate the obviousness of their perspective so that Mike will change. A more productive frame of mind is to believe that the team see many important things, but not the whole situation, Mike may see additional things they don’t and the task is to work together to design a productive way forward.

Focus on getting directly observable evidence rather than assumptions
It would be useful for Alice to ask the team to tell her what they’ve seen Mike say or avoid doing that leads them to believe he is aware of the blockers and has deliberately chosen not to do anything about them. Getting down to the level of directly observable data – what a video camera would capture – would allow Alice to understand more about the problem and potentially highlight how the team’s behaviour may (inadvertently) be contributing to the situation.

Strive to raise the issue with the people involved at the time it happens
An effective situation would be one where the team were able to raise their concerns directly with Mike and ask if he sees it similarly, or perhaps sees something that they are missing. For example, they might say:

“On our task board, there is a task that is blocked because we’re waiting on another team to do some work for us. Our understanding of the Agile process is that your role is to help us overcome these situations. Does that match your view? If so, can we share our view about what’s causing this blockage and how we could work together with you to remove it?”

In my experience working with teams using the suggestions above has created productive outcomes even in complex situations. I welcome your experiences or views in the comments.

About Benjamin Mitchell

Hi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

11 responses to “Helping overcome impediments between Managers and Agile Teams”

  1. morgsterious says :

    Great post! I recognize the scenario from my own experiences as well. The problems in my situation stemmed from a lack of communication and a lack of visibility. One team seemed to be stuck, not producing anything. When asked about why, they said that management wasn’t helping them remove impediments. I told them that I could not see any impediments on their Scrum-board and asked them how management was supposed to know about them. It turned out that the team had just assumed that their more or less subtle hints about problems would get picked up and resolved. The team then flagged all impediments and communicated them explicitly with the project manager and sure enough, two days later impediments were being resolved again.

    Regarding Alice’s approach, I agree that a curious mindset is usually the best way to get change to happen. It’s kind of hard though to tell from this short story how much Alice would try to steer Mike’s behavior and how open her questions and mind would be so I will give her the benefit of my doubt for now. :-)

    BR

    Morgan

    • benjaminmitchell says :

      Hi Morgan,

      Thanks for leaving such detailed feedback around your experience! I enjoyed reading it. I agree that the situation you described sounds like an absence of communication in that management seemed unaware that the team had impediments. I would be curious to probe the assumptions or frames that the lead the team to believe that management should have understood there were impediments without them explicitly communicating them. They may have simply been unaware of their assumption, or it may have been something else which prevented them from communication clearly, if so I think it would be useful to invite them to surface the thinking in order to determine if the same reasons may create an impact in future.

      I think you’re right that more directly observable data (either a two column case study or a video/audio recording) would have made it easier to evaluate Alice’s approach. I do think that the statements in the scenario show her as asking questions without revealing her intent behind asking them – I think it would be more effective if she added something like “the reason I’m asking is …”. Further, if she chose to model a behaviour with the intent that Mike adopt it without her having to say so that this was what she was doing that a likely consequence would be that Mike would be puzzled and confused it would be better to be clear with Mike what she was doing an why.

      What’s your take on my reply? If you see things differently I’d like to hear your view.

      Benjamin.

      • morgsterious says :

        In my case, I think the team mentioned their problems during Scrum of Scrums but without explicitly asking for help. This combined with them not flagging the impediments on their (electronic) Scrum board probably helped setting the scene. I’m pretty sure that other factors on the project manager’s side contributed to him not picking up on the problems as well but I can’t really tell what these could have been though since I wasn’t working that closely with him at the moment. One important factor for succeeding as a coach is the ability to see and hear more than one view on things but when we don’t get that opportunity, we must at least be aware that there are multiple truths out there.

        I think that I can agree with your analysis on Alice. My point regarding her was based on that with curious inquiry, no intent should have to be expressed but re-reading makes it quite obvious to me that she had an intent and then everyone would probably have been better off if she had made it explicit and chosen a different way of approaching Mike.

        I appreciate the way you’ve put together this scenario. Coaching is a delicate business and analyzing a dialogue like this is great practice and brings the importance of seemingly small nuances to the surface.

        BR

        Morgan

  2. Ian Dugmore says :

    Hi Benjamin

    If I was the manager I would find the wording used as quite accusation. I think it’s something to do with the double use of “you’re role” [sic] and “your view” and the term “our taskboard”. Rather than give the impression of shared responsibility It seems to come across as “it’s all your fault”

    The underlying issue is Mike’s lack of attendance at standup. Perhaps Alice’s approach to solving this is what needs to be improved and where it would be best to focus your mindset of curiosity.

    There also seems to be some expectance on the part of the team that Mike can magically solve all issues and that their agile process will work perfectly from day one, although this may just be to set the scene for your scenario

    • benjaminmitchell says :

      Hi Ian,

      I really appreciate you giving your perspective from the Manager’s angle. My intent was not to accuse the manager so it’s useful for me to hear that you think this is how it could have been interpreted. It’s very helpful that you’ve highlighted the words that lead you to that impression.

      I can see that the statement I suggested a team member could make to Mike contains (“our board”, “our understanding”) which could contributing to a “us vs you” dynamic. I can also see that the statements makes some assumptions that a) Mike has seen the blocked tasks, b) Mike has consciously chosen not to do anything about them and c) that he chose not do so because he understood his role differently. I don’t think there’s evidence to support those assumptions in the scenario.

      I’m thinking it may have been more effective for the team member to refer to their impression and thoughts and perhaps not claim exclusive ownership of the task board. Something like:

      “On the task board I see a is a task that I think is blocked because of work that another team needs to perform [say what you see]. I think that we could benefit from working together with you to remove this block [share your view]. What’s your view of this task? Were you aware that the task was blocked? [inquire into the manager's view]”

      How do you think a manager might react to that re-statement? [I really appreciate the opportunity to practice here]

      In terms of your comment on the team hoping that “Mike can magically solve all issues” I think I can see your view but would find it helpful if you could say what lead you to this view. Even better, would be willing to share what you might say to them if you were their manager and thought this was the case?

      Benjamin

      p.s. thanks for picking up the typo.

      • Mike Burrows (@asplake) says :

        I find Benjamin’s post quite fair to Mike (especially in challenging Alice’s assumptions) and the comment I want to pick up on is actually Ian’s:

        “The underlying issue is Mike’s lack of attendance at standup”.

        I can understand that the team feels let down, but this is neither the impactful problem (blockers not being resolved) nor a root cause. Possible underlying causes include a genuine difficulty in making the standups, insufficient value gained from attending, perhaps a belief that that his attendance would in some way be bad for the team. Moreover, the standup meeting is just one way in which issues could be resolved.

        It’s a focus on Mike’s behaviour rather than his environment (risking an attribution error) and an elevation of the team’s practice to a level that may make it harder to find a mutually agreeable solution.

        What would I do in Alice’s shoes?

        Applying 5whys to Mike personally may be presumptious(!), so instead I would focus on the problem in hand and on the aspects of the system that seem to make resolution difficult. I would be asking Mike (outside of the standup, obviously):

        1) What shall we do with *these* issues?
        2) In what ways could we deal with issues like this more effectively as they arise?

        And I might have to be ready to accept that stepping back from the daily standup may be just what’s needed.

        Would I be so wrong in choosing not to challenge the behaviour (or impressions thereof) directly here? Is that cowardice or humility? Curiosity even?

        Mike (no, not *that* Mike)

  3. Rini van Solingen says :

    Once I made T-shirts and caps for the management team of a company I was coaching stating “Impediment Buster” and on the back of the T-shirt “How can I help you?”.
    I also once encountered a manager who had a sign on his door that the commited to solve the following impediments before the start of the next sprint, and there were 2 sticky notes with top impediments coming from the retrospective. He would see them everytime he walked in and out of his office! Impediment backlog for the management team.

  4. David Espley says :

    Really enjoyed the article and can see definite parallel with my real world experience.

    I think it is worth noting that not all impediments can be resolved within the time-frame needed. This often occurs because the person responsible for removing the obstacle, for whatever reason, is unable to do so. The problem can often be exacerbated by the fact that this person feels stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, they feel they are letting the team down but they cannot gain resolution. Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy creep in and this often leads to said person retreating and avoiding contact with the development team and a blame culture quickly creeps back in.

    It is better for the manager to be honest and admit that they cannot control what is going on and for the ‘team’ to accept this without blaming the manager. It is vital that they don’t take sides in this process as it can quickly lead to another them Vs. us mentality.

    The problem is that most people struggle with the concept of a blameless situation. Unfortunately, my experience is that the larger or more autocratic a company, the more likely it is that impediments just take longer than ‘logical’ to remove. Changing the company is a noble goal but often way out of scope of those involved in the project

    • benjaminmitchell says :

      Thanks for sharing your perspective David. Your description of “being stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place” sounds consistent with my goal of helping teams to surface the possible binds that managers might be experiencing, rather than assuming that as the team they can see the whole situation and hold the “right” view. Personally it’s taken me many years to arrive at this perspective and I’m still practising!

      It takes some courage and skill for a manager to admit that they believe they are unable to remove the impediment within the time frame the team might like. Rather than simply asking the team to accept the manager’s conclusion, my ideal would be for the manager to strive to explain the reasoning behind their view and to invite the team to highlight any gaps or inconsistencies in the reasoning, or if they hold a different view to share it with the manager, all with the intent of jointly designing a way to move forward together.

      I’ve worked with several clients on this kind of problem and acknowledge the fact it can be complex on both sides. I like that you’ve drawn attention to the fact that managers can sometimes feel blamed by the team.

      Thanks again for leaving a comment.

      Benjamin.

  5. Jamie says :

    They could try talking… good old fashioned talking!

  6. Ian Dugmore says :

    Hi Benjamin

    I think David has summed up my feelings on impediments already. I think teams need to understand that even if a managers role is to remove impediments that it does not absolve the team of responsibility.

    From recent experience I know of a team that had been waiting for what they saw as an impediment to be removed for over a year, the issue was costing them several hours a week. As David says, in a large organisation some seemingly simple things are just not possible and you need to find another solution to the problem and the team would probably be best placed to know what the workaround could be.

    In reference to you second suggestion of how to approach Mike. I think it’s very good, I’d just leave of the last sentence ” Were you aware that the task was blocked?” as I don’t think it’s needed and would steer Mike to answering that one point rather than giving him the opportunity to consider the wider issues.

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