How Managers Can Help: Removing Impediments

March 31, 2009

Our use of Agile development involves the usual short, daily standup meeting where team members answer three questions:

1. What did I do yesterday?

2. What am I working on today?

3. What is getting in my way?

The last question is about obstacles, and anything that blocks progress for an individual or a team will drag the overall performance of an organization down. As a manager, I find that I am in an excellent position to help remove many obstacles faced by teams.

Physical Obstacles
Early on, teams may face basic challenges like having a meeting place for their daily standup or having enough white boards available. These problems are easily correctable and something that a manager can take on to help the teams establish themselves. This will also be motivational for the teams, as you will be seen as supporting the team through direct action.

Other problems can surface, like the desire for team co-location or the need for test machines (virtualization makes this easier), but again, as a manager I find that I can help support teams by taking on certain tasks to facilitate whatever cross-organizational approvals are required to make things happen.

Resources & Training Obstacles
The technology world is not standing still! There will be a need for training in specific areas in order for teams to be successful. This may involve formal class training or bringing in a consultant with specialized knowledge. If you are new to Agile, an Agile coach is highly recommended! In any case, managers can help get the approvals in place to make things happen.

In some cases, there will be a need to reach out across your own internal organization for specialized knowledge. Approvals for someone’s time may be difficult to obtain, leading me to my next point.

Organizational Obstacles
Overcoming organizational inertia (red tape) can be a drain, such as getting tools and equipment ordered and approved or resolving conflicting goals between departments in terms of priorities. Managers can work these issues on behalf of teams so that the teams can remain focused on what they are doing, which is building quality, working software.

Teamwork and Personnel Obstacles
Not all teams will fire on all cylinders automatically. Managers will need to help guide teams and their direct reports so that expectations are consistent and clear. As I mentioned in my post Assessing, Coaching, and Developing Your Staff, I noted that not everyone is prepared to be part of an empowered team, nor are teams of people fully prepared to work as a self-directed team, particularly if this is new to them.

What else can a manager do? Anticipate.

Empowered teams are typically focused on the here-and-now. A useful management technique is to look ahead, determine what the team will be facing in the near future and be at the ready with options. General George Patton, famous for his ability to move an entire army quickly and efficiently did this very thing.