How to remove team obstacles?

Today, we will talk about the subject of how to remove obstacles for project team in an agile project.

In agile project management, more and more people get familiar with the concept of “Servant Leadership”. Helping project team remove the obstacles during an agile project is the core duty of Scrum Master as a servant leader.

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In the process of project, it is very important that project manager knows about how to identify obstacles and how to effectively response to the obstacles, because these are relative to successfully pushing the project forward. Therefore, project manager should master the art of removing obstacle, which needs the project manager to continually improve his ability of communication and innovation, and sometimes even the basic ability of diplomatic.

When dealing project team’s obstacles, first we have to identify which obstacles are truly critical ones. This point is very important. Some obstacles are personal, in which case the project manager usually can suggest the team member to search the answer through internet by himself. But if the obstacle is not personal, it’s relative to the whole team (it’s called team obsticle), then that should be the one which project manager should intervene and help them solve the problem.


1 Do not be on call at all time

“Servant leadership” does not mean that the project manager is a servant or a waiter of project team.

When Jack entered a new company as a new director of research department, he had a young girl as his employee, and she’s one of the project managers. This young girl was very serious and responsible for her work as project manager. For example, whenever there was a problem or issue in the project, she would personally deal with it, problem such as project planning, resource allocation, problem solving, and so forth.

Although she always tried to remove various obstacles during the project, but her project was still behind schedule, and the situation became more and more serious. As a result, the girl had no choice but to update the project schedule plan again and again, and the project schedule was being delayed repeatedly. From Jack’s point of view, the girl was indeed very responsible, he saw her dealing and communicating countless project problems everyday.

In that situation, the girl became the project team’s “babysitter” and “fireman” by solving every obstacles of the project. But the result was not good, then she came to Jack for help. That was when Jack asked her the following questions:

1. Is the obstacle a team obstacle? Or just an issue which can be solved by the development team themselves?

2. As project manager, is it really necessary to remove the obstacle personally?

3. What is the real problem here?

By answering the upper three questions, the girl realized that an issue can only be called “team obstacle” when it exceeds the ability of the self-organized team, in which case the team really needs project manager to help them remove the obstacle. After a few weeks, the status of the project became more and more controllable.

Through the upper case, I hope the readers can realize that the most important part of removing team obstacles is to identify the truly critical obstacles. Only by doing that can help the project team effectively, rather than becoming the “fireman” of the team and putting out the fire without searching the cause of the fire. In this way, the team would not have the chance to develop its self-organizing ability.


2 How I remove two team obstacles simultaneously

After the team obstacles being identified, how can we effectively remove the obstacles?

Here is a case which I have been through personally.

I was a Scrum Master of a software system updating project. The system was rather complicated. The development team contained 5 Scrum Teams which involved members of designing, developing, testing, and so forth. During the process of sprints, I gathered all Scrum teams together to hold stand-up meetings everyday.

During a daily stand-up meeting, a senior testing engineer said: “The test server is down, it is the third time of this week.” On the other hand, a junior developer said: “I have spent three days writing test cases for some old function, so far there has been no problem.” But based on my experience, the test case writing normally takes no more than one day, which means the developer did not realized he had encountered an obstacle.

After the daily meeting, I talked to the junior developer, just as I expected, there are some defects in the old function codes, and this developer did not has enough experience for it. Then he and I wrote an “Issue Card” and put it on the Information Radiator. Just after one hours, an experienced developer saw the card and said to the junior developer that he had encountered the problem before and was willing to help. Problem solved!

Later, I invited a senior test engineer to write an Issue Card regarding to the test server problem. And the director of development department saw the card and reached out for me. He said that he noticed that the test server problem had happened repeatedly. After negotiation with the director, he promised he would help fixing this problem. He said he could ask some of his men to diagnose the server and give some advise to the senior engineer who’s responsible for the testing.

At the end of that day, two obstacles had been solved simultaneously.


3 Three key points of removing team obstacles

First, we should try to identify what obstacles are truly critical and need project manager’s help.

Like the first case, the young project manager tried to solve every obstacles all by herself is not good. Also in the second case, the junior developer did not realize he had encountered an obstacle, in this situation he needs project managers attention to identify existence of the problem.

Second, after the obstacles being identified, efficient methods are needed to remove the obstacles.

As shown in the second case, in agile project management, Information Radiator and Issue Card are effective and efficient ways to communicate and solve the problem.

Third, self-organized team is the most effective tool for solving problem in agile project.

As shown in the second case, team obstacles can not be resolved by just one developer/engineer. A cross-functional and self-organized development team is needed. In this type of project team, each member has high-level trust to each other. And they all feel responsible for the  achievement of the final product.

In summary, this article demonstrates how to identify and resolve team obstacles in agile project management.

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