The Art of Obstacle Removal

June 19, 2020
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This is one of my longest articles on Agile Advice.  It was written while I was actively helping CapitalOne to develop internal coaches as a way to help with the education process.  Since then, I have used elements of this article in many environments including my training seminars for ScrumMasters.  Again, this is one of those popular articles that focuses on very practical advice.  If you are a coach or a process facilitator or a ScrumMaster or a manager, I strongly recommend reading this and practicing the approaches listed here.
One thing that is missing from this article is the details of how you apply these approaches to obstacle removal.  This is simple: go through the list of approaches and determine which approach gives you a suitable idea or strategy for removing an obstacle.  With that idea, then simply come up with some initial short-term action items and execute them!  Keep your overall strategy in mind as you progress on your action items so that you execute through to completely removing the obstacle.  Good luck!

One of the best ways to go faster is to remove the things that slow you down. This “obstacle removal” is an integral part of many Agile methods including Scrum and Lean. Sometimes it is obvious where an obstacle is. There are a few small things that can be done easily to go faster. But to get going really fast, we need to have a deeper understanding of obstacles… and the Art of Obstacle Removal.

What are Obstacles?

An obstacle is any behaviour, physical arrangement, procedure or checkpoint that makes getting work done slower without adding any actual contribution to the work. Activities that do add value to our work may be slowed down by obstacles, but are not obstacles in and of themselves.

Obstacles and Waste

Obstacles are the causes of waste in a process. There are many types of waste, and for every type of waste there are many possible sources (obstacles). [There is another article in the next section on types of waste called “Eliminate Waste”.]

Types of Obstacles

Personal

Personal obstacles are related to us as individuals. There are several levels at which these obstacles can show up.

Outside factors in our lives such as illness or family obligations can become obstacles to our work at hand. These obstacles are hard to remove or avoid. Even if we would want to avoid an obstacle such as illness, it is hard to do anything about it in an immediate sense. However, as part of our commitment to the team we are working with, we should consider doing things to generally improve our health. Good sleep, healthy and moderate eating, exercise and avoidance of illness-causing things and circumstances are all possible commitments we can make to the team. Likewise, we can make sure our personal affairs are in order so that unexpected events have the least impact possible. This topic is vast and there are many good sources of information.

Physical Environment

Obstacles in the physical environment can consist of barriers to movement or communication, or a lack of adequate physical resources. Sometimes these obstacles are easy to see because their effects are immediate. For example, if a team room lacks a whiteboard for diagrams, keeping notes, etc., then the team may not be able to communicate as effectively.

Other physical obstacles are not so obvious. The effects of physical environment can be subtle and not well-understood. Poor ergonomics take weeks, months or years for their effects to be felt… but it is inevitable. A too-small team room can lead to a feeling of being cooped up and desperation to get out… and eventually to resentment. Again this can take weeks or months.

Knowledge

A lack of knowledge or the inability to access information are obstacles. A team composed of junior people who don’t have diverse experience and who don’t have a good knowledge of the work they are doing will have trouble working effectively. There may be barriers preventing the team from learning. Common barriers include over-work leading to a lack of time or mental energy for learning. With junior people in particular, there is a lot of pressure to be productive and that can often be at the expense of a solid foundation of learning.

Other times, knowledge-related barriers can be more immediate. If a critical piece of information is delayed or lost this can have a large impact on an Agile team that is working in short cycles. The team may be temporarily halted while they wait for information. Building effective information flow is critical to a team’s performance.

Organizational

Bureaucratic procedures, organizational misalignment, conflicting goals, and inefficient organizational structures can all be significant obstacles.  A good example of this is a regular meeting that doesn’t have a well-defined purpose and agenda.  A larger obstacle that also falls into this category is a gap in communication between two functional areas of an organization.

Cultural

Sometimes the beliefs we have about how to work can become obstacles to working more effectively. These beliefs are often in place because they have been part of what we think makes us successful. Cultural assumptions can come from our families, our communities, our religious affiliation and our national identity.

In organizational culture, one thing I constantly see is a public espoused value of teamwork, but a conflicting behaviour of individual performance reviews and ranking. This is cultural. It is also a barrier to the effective functioning of an Agile team. For corporate environments I highly recommend “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide” by Edgar Schein.

Disunity

Disunity is one of the most subtle and common forms of obstacle. Competition, legal and cultural assumption of the goodness of “opposition” and habits of interaction including gossip and backbiting all combine to make united action and thought very difficult.

This is an extremely deep topic. There are many tools and techniques available to assist with team building. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading “Beyond the Culture of Contest“ by Michael Karlberg.

Removing Obstacles

The ability to identify obstacles and understand why they are causing problems is only the first step in removing obstacles. In Agile methods, the person primarily responsible for identifying and removing obstacles is often the ScrumMaster, coach or process facilitator. This person has several approaches available for the removal of obstacles. A person in this role has similar responsibilities to a change agent.

The process facilitator can be involved in removing obstacles in several ways:

Direct

Deal with the obstacle directly without involving other people. This can be as simple as getting up and moving an obstacle impairing vision, or as nuanced as running interviews and workshops throughout an organization to gradually change a cultural obstacle.

Command and Control

Identify the obstacle and give precise instructions for its removal to a person who will directly perform the removal. This can sometimes work if removing an obstacle takes a great deal of time, effort or specialized skills that you yourself do not possess. However, the overall approach of “command and control” is not recommended for Agile environments since it is disempowering.

Influence

Identify the obstacle and suggest means to deal with it to a person who has the authority or influence to get others to deal with it. This indirect method of obstacle removal can be slow and frustrating. However it usually has better long-term effects than command and control, and often is the only method available to outside consultants who are acting as coaches.

Support

Offer to assist and encourage the removal of obstacles that have been identified by other people. In many respects this is a very effective method. It can assist with team-building and learning by example. People are usually grateful for assistance.

Coaching

Train others on the art of obstacle removal including obstacle identification, types of obstacles and strategies for dealing with obstacles. Observe people’s attempts to remove obstacles and give them feedback on their actions.

Creating a Culture of Obstacle Removal

Encourage and measure obstacle removal at all organizational levels until it becomes habitual. In many ways this is the essence of the lean organization.

Strategies for Dealing with Obstacles

Diagrams are a great way of communicating the essence of a concept.  This first diagram indicates a team that is facing an obstacle and a process facilitator (usually a ScrumMaster) who sees the situation and is about to help remove the obstacle.

It helps to use a specific example.  Imagine that one of the members of your team has come to you with a complaint.  She has been asked, multiple times, by a Vice-President of sales, to do extra work unrelated to the work of the team and it is getting to be a problem for her.  She wants your help dealing with this obstacle!

Remove

Remove the obstacle altogether. This method of dealing with an obstacle is usually the most immediately effective, but is also one of the most difficult methods.

The best way to actually remove an obstacle is to get at the root cause of the obstacle and change that. This type of change results in the longest-lasting and most stable elimination of an obstacle.

In our imaginary situation, however, this approach doesn’t seem to make much sense.  We can’t fire the VP of sales!

Move Aside

Take the obstacle and put it in a place or situation where it is no longer in the path of the team.

In a team’s physical environment, this may be as simple as changing the tools that the team is using. For example, if the team is all in a room together, move computer monitors that are blocking team member’s views of each other. If there is a useless checkpoint that work results have to go through, get management to eliminate it.

Sometimes an approach to obstacle removal just doesn’t make sense for our situation.  With the VP of sales interrupting our team member, this approach just doesn’t seem to make any sense.  How would you move the VP aside?

Shield

Build a shield or barrier to hide the obstacle so that it’s effects no longer touch your team.

If a team is distracted by noisy neighbours, put up a sound barrier. If a team is unable to see their computers due to late afternoon sunlight, put up window shades. If a manager is bothering the team with meetings or tasks unrelated to the work of the team, then put yourself between the team and the manager (or get someone in upper management to do that).

Shielding is excellent for immediate relief, but remember that the obstacle is still there and may become a problem again if the shield cannot be maintained.

In our example with the VP of sales, the shield may be the Process Facilitator!  Ask the VP to make requests through yourself rather than going directly to the member of the team.  This is a promising approach, but, of course, it is likely to be only of temporary relief.

Transform

Change the structure or form of the obstacle so that it no longer affects effectiveness.

In general, this method requires a great deal of creativity and open-mindedness. This is one that works particularly well on people who are obstacles: convert them into friends of the team!

For example if the team needs approval of an expert who is not part of the team, this can cause extra work preparing documentation for this person and long delays while the expert revies the documents. If the expert becomes part of the team, then they are well-informed of the work being done and can give approval with very little overhead.

If done well, this can be a very long-lasting method of dealing with an obstacle. Make sure that the transformation is true and that it takes hold… and beware that the obstacle doesn’t revert back to its old nature.

This might also be an effective way to deal with our disruptive VP of sales: educate him on the problems that he is causing, get him to understand the value of focus for your team member (and the problems with task-switching) and see if you can help him find another channel for his needs to be supported.

Overpower

Find an activity that negates the effects of the obstacle by boosting effectiveness in another area.

As a coach or Process Facilitator, this is what we spend our time in early in a team’s adoption of Agile methods: we get them to work in the same room, use iterations and adaptive planning, we focus them on delivering work valued by the stakeholders as defined by the Product Owner or customer. All these things are enhancing the team’s ability to get work done without actually directly dealing with any obstacles.

Watch out for barriers avoided this way to come back and bite you later on.

Our VP of sales could be overpowered by supporting your team member to develop her ability to say “no” to senior executives when what they are asking for is bad for the team and the business.  Admittedly, this type of capacity in challenging to develop in some people due to the long-ingrained culture of respect for authority (and sometimes fear of losing one’s job).

Removing Obstacles and Learning

Organizational learning, as well as adult learning have a strong relationship to obstacle removal. Organizational learning can be either single-loop or double-loop learning. Adult learning can be either normal or transformative. We can approach obstacle removal from a surface level where we only deal with the immediate symptom, or we can work at a deeper level where we deal with the symptom and its chain of preceding causes. One effective method for examining the deeper causes is the 5-why’s exercise.  Dealing with the deeper causes of obstacles can help with double-loop learning for the organization and transformative learning for the people on your team.

Obstacles Inherent in Agile

Agile methods do not perfectly eliminate all obstacles. Some obstacles that are inherent in Agile methods include overhead due to planning meetings at the start of iterations, the use of a dedicated process facilitator. As well, the use of iterations can become a barrier to certain types of work items: repeating items, investment in infrastructure, one-off tasks that are not directly related to the work at hand.

At some point, our teams will have matured to the point where Agile methods are no longer necessary and we can pick and choose what parts of Agile we use.

Go Forth and Demolish Obstacles!

As a Process Facilitator, coach, ScrumMaster, manager, change agent or stealth Agile advocate, you have the ability and the knowledge to make a big difference in people’s lives and in the success of the organizations they work within. Removing obstacles is one of the most important duties you have.

H20 Obstacle Removal Strategies

 

[This article was originally published on Agile Advice on 10-Mar-2006]


 
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