My article last week discussed the need for team members to act with responsible transparency. Each team member requires discipline and wisdom to judge when an issue preventing them from completing their work items can be resolved quickly without the need for broader communication or escalation.
If a blocker surfaces and no one other than the person who encountered the impediment is aware of it, the delivery of that work item could be critically impacted resulting in a cascading set of delays. The same holds true for the team as a whole. I've occasionally worked with teams whose members are uniformly confident in their ability to resolve any blocker which arises. Such teams can go out of their way to show that they are in control and everything is going well on their delivery work, right up till the moment when it is clear to all that this is not the case.
So assuming that team members are doing a good job of surfacing impediments, how should these be communicated and tracked?
The project manager will likely be accountable for maintaining a project issue log but depending on where that artifact is housed it might not be visible enough to create the right sense of urgency from the stakeholders who can help the team resolve issues. Also, such a log is likely to track higher level issues and not just those affecting individual work items.
If a detailed schedule is being used to plan and track work activities, blockers could be directly linked to the affected activities, and indicator icons or flags can be set to highlight the tasks which are currently blocked. But that still requires stakeholders to regularly review the project schedule.
A better approach is to expose blockers through existing information radiators.
If a work board is used to help the team manage their work flow, blockers can be identified in one of the following three ways:
- A column named Blocked could be added to the board and team members would move work items to this column when they encounter an impediment which requires support from others. If the team is following Kanban, work in progress limits could be set on this column to limit the total number of unresolved blockers.
- A new work item designated as a "Blocker" could be created. If a physical board is used, a different colored stickie could be used to denote these. With this approach, the current status of the impediment is clear but the linkage between the blocker and the work item(s) affected isn't.
- Affected work items could be flagged to indicate they are blocked. In the case of physical boards, a removable sticker could be stuck on them.
Blockers can also be tracked separately using a pain snake (sometimes called a "snake on the wall"). Every time a new blocker is identified, a new stickie is added to the snake. The length of the snake will help encourage the team not to allow too many blockers to remain unresolved.
So how bold are your team's blockers?