Of unpleasant surprises
Imagine yourself managing a project where not a single problem arises during progress. No issues, no uncovered risks, nothing. A nice idea, right? And now reality. Each and every one of us encounters problems and obstacles throughout every single project. Even with the best and most granulated Risk / Impact Probability Chart, we won't have all the risks on the radar. And even if we capture and reduce risks before the project's executing phase starts, over time all kinds of hurdles will be popping up.
Of course, you can handle it in a way that seems very prevalent to me. Just ignore the issues and hope that they will disappear. Funnily (or actually tragically) they never do that by themselves.
Let us have a look at Scrum
Old project stagers have to smile when Scrum Masters are proudly showing their impediment backlogs. Because, even if the average Scrum Coach is trying to tell us that collecting problems that are slowing down the team is an invention of Scrum, such lists have been there since project management exists: Issue Management is the magic word here. Such emerging problems have to be
And most importantly, they have to be managed. As always and everywhere in project management: it needs someone to take care for. Someone who is collecting and maintaining these issues. But which format is the right one for such an issue list?
Let's take a closer look at the Impediment Backlog format. Because we can find several takeaways there. But first things first, what is that? An Impediment Backlog is a document (analog or digital) in which a Scrum Master captures all the stones that are in the way of the team and that have to be cleared away. These are usually collected during the Daily - the brief meeting during mornings where everyone tells what was done yesterday, what's going to happen today, and what's stopping them from being productive (or even more productive).
Many small stones are cleared away easier than a big one
And here we can notice something. Such a Scrum Master does not (only) project work, but also a lot of operational work. Daily business. Of course inside a project environment. And, of course, the border is indistinct and depends a lot on people, phases and, above all, needs. But such an Impediment Backlog is mostly consisting of "small" problems. Issues at the daily business level. We won't find many huge - and huge means insoluble in that form - chunks there. In other words, in such an Impediment Backlog we have many issues that we can get rid of very quickly and easily. Many small stones are cleared away easier than a big one.
Prioritization is half the battle...
Another big advantage of such an Impediment Backlog is that it is not just a list, but a backlog - that is, a prioritized list. The most important - in our case the most serious - problem is always to be found at the top. This helps me to help my team. The issue that bothers them the most is the one I am going to tackle first.
..and clarified responsibilities are the second half
And such an Impediment Backlog is also a very elegant and easy solution for responsibilities: the Scrum Master is responsible for all the impediments that are on the backlog. No RACI matrix, no pushing around and no denying. There is one person and that one takes care. This does not mean we can not delegate topics that are on the list. But the responsibility should lie with the project management.
That may seem out of place at first glance. Why should we, as project managers, carry the can for other people? But we are talking about issues here. These are either risks that have become alive or even problems that have arisen unexpectedly. In my opinion, we are facing a roof that is on fire in that case. And the solving of such issues should be a particular concern for project leaders. But you all see it that way, right? And so it is only fair that we have the responsibility for resolving the impediments in our own backlog. My two cents.
Where there is light, there is also shadow
That sounds almost too good to be true. And in my experience, Impediment Backlogs also have some weaknesses. Or to be more precise, their handling has. I often see well-behaved Scrum Masters who are writing down all of the topics their team tells them about. In fine writing, with a box to tick it off. And then they grab all of their colorful marker pens and start drawing circles around and lines between those list items. In my opinion, impediments (or issues in our case) are tackled the moment we hear about them. They are far too important not to start immediately. Only when I have to wait for something - that is, a dependency - the issue becomes part of the backlog.
"Open your eyes, open your ears, Helmi is here"
Back in my childhood days (a long time ago) there was a television series in Austria called Helmi, which had the purpose to teach us careless children the responsible use of the traffic regulations. And in the show's title song, it said, "Open your eyes, open your ears, Helmi is here." And we should all take that to heart. Even if my team is holding a Standup Meeting where they are talking about any stones in their way every single day. Who says that they really are thinking of every single one? And who tells me that an issue does not show up two minutes after the meeting ends? So we should always keep at least one ear on the team.
And an important notice (a point that is discreetly concealed in the Scrum Guide). We should not ignore the distinction between issues and risks just because one is using an Impediment Backlog. Even if the two words are used quite synonymously. But a risk has no business on an issue list or in an Impediment Backlog! For risks we have our good old Risk Management, all with plan, identify, analyze, execute, and so on. Only when a risk becomes alive it becomes an issue.
Maybe we project managers should include the term Impediment Backlog in our vocabulary. Such a prioritized listing of all issues that are blocking our team - and thus jeopardizing our entire project - and that we can (gradually) work off is a valuable tool for our daily project work. Because even without such a list it is already complicated enough.
What good teams have in common with good bands.
As a trained guitar player I love some good jazz. Well, I love all kinds of music. But even those who are not much into jazz music at all, have to admit that they are astonished when musicians seemingly effortlessly deliver the wildest improvisations. But what is behind this genius? Dark arts? It is said that Jimi Hendrix never had a single music lesson in his life. So is it all talent? Or is there more than just pure musical sense? And what does all this have to do with teams?
First, let's clarify what jazz improvisation - or generally improvisation in music - actually is. Improvisation is when one or more people make music without previously written down fixation. That is, the played notes and melodies arise spontaneously.
Again, what does that have to do with teams?
In our daily project work, we are experiencing this every day. This interaction of people, which has not previously been fixed. And even if our planning is good and detailed and almost perfect - at the implementation level we are owing much to the spontaneous ideas and inspirations of individuals.
And here is our big 'but'. As in making music, this is only working when the people involved know exactly what they are doing, and are prepared well.
Learning from the best
Here we can learn a lot from musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, or Judy Carmichael. Good improvisation has a rock solid basis. Because none of the above just went on a stage and started playing music. On the contrary, there is a lot of training and rehearsing and preparation behind it. So spontaneous improvisation is not so spontaneous at all. And it is not totally free either. There are chords and scales and a lot of formality. Does that ring a bell? Let me say it in other words: there are methods and processes and a lot of formality. Ha! Our daily business, right?
Of course, I can handle projects without these methods and processes. And there are certainly some Jimi Hendrixes of the project management world, who can do without formality and without their company going bankrupt. But personally, I have never experienced a haphazard project that did not go up in flames at some point. Did you?
So what are these good jazz bands doing and what lessons can we draw from them?
Conclusion - how can I use that for myself
It does not matter if I am building a team for a big project from scratch, or if I am working with a veteran group. But I always try to create an atmosphere in which teams can live those above points.
I can not force formality and rules. This has to come from the team. I can only pave the way and make suggestions. And mutual consent and trust can also not be created on command. They come naturally when team members feel secure. And only when everyone has agreed on basic rules and everyone knows how things are going, valuable improvisation can arise.
Oh, if anyone still wonders if it's true that Jimi Hendrix never had any music lessons: Jein, as we say in Austria. Yes and no. Billy Davis (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Davis_(guitarist)) showed him a few things on the guitar. And Buddy Guy (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Guy) once claimed in an interview, that he had given Hendrix some lessons. So by and large, Jimi Hendrix is self-taught. But that is a different story.