If your team has found themselves locked out of the scrum room and working in a new or unfamiliar way, resolving the urgent and important impediments facing your team needs to be their primary focus. Considering it is one of the key responsibilities of a Scrum Master to help increase the team’s velocity by removing their impediments, your team’s Scrum Master should lead this charge.

As we covered in part one, the first day of remote work is definitely an interruption, and the team needs to acknowledge and discuss this. Hopefully, your team includes a buffer in your sprints to hold space for such an interruption and avoid a sprint emergency. If you don’t already use a buffer, now might be a good time to consider one. Buffers are also useful for accounting for more commonplace interruptions — such as an unexpected but mandatory request from management.

A sprint emergency is declared when the team realizes it cannot complete the sprint backlog, and will therefore be unable to achieve the sprint goal within the sprint. Since the move to remote work can be such a large disruption, especially for a team that is wholly unfamiliar with the procedures and tools for remote work, it may require your team to invoke its emergency procedure. Consider the following responses a scrum team can execute and get to work (responses are listed in order of least to most severe and should be executed in order until the emergency is resolved).

  • Remove impediments: Your scrum team will start doing this immediately, but it may not be enough to save the sprint and achieve the sprint goal. We’ll detail additional impediments to be aware of and ways of handling remote impediment resolution below.
  • Reduce sprint scope: See if your Product Owner can remove anything from the current sprint.
  • Solicit help from other teams: Does your company have other scrum teams and do you have a system of cross-team collaboration in place? Ask for help!
  • Cancel the sprint and start over: If there is no way to save the sprint, the last course of action is to immediately halt the current sprint and start a new one. Sprint Planning would be the next scrum practice the team would have together.

It’s important to reassess things as a team on day one of remotely working together and determine how work will be done and what’s currently in the way of making that happen. A likely first impediment: How will this first interaction take place among the team in a remote setting? If you don’t already have a videoconferencing system, we highly recommend you get one (Zoom is reliable and inexpensive) so your team can maintain daily face-to-face communication.

Next, meet as a team in your chosen medium, ideally a videoconference, and start working on the first emergency response: Remove impediments. The impediments your team is facing must be made visible. Keep this simple, but get all the information about what you’re dealing with into the open to ensure everyone understands the impediments facing the group and how they might be addressed. Since your team is likely going to face many impediments relating to this transition, group them by importance and urgency. Make sure to consider both general impediments for this new way of working and new impediments relating to stories within the sprint.

Here are some potential general questions you might ask to uncover impediments.

  • How will the team communicate throughout the day if they’re not sitting in the same room?
  • Your physical scrum board is locked in a room you’re no longer allowed in — what do you do?
  • Does the team have the tools in place to do their work from home? What do team members need?
  • Does every team member have a productive work environment?
  • Are there new external interruptions that now need to be accounted for in sprints, e.g., parents needing to watch children who are home from school? 

Resolving impediments isn’t typically the hard part in scrum, at least in our experience. Actually unearthing and identifying hidden impediments is much more of a challenge, and requires a high level of intentionality and questioning from Scrum Masters. What is the real difficulty? Don’t take stated impediments at face value — dig into them. We often use the five whys, a problem-solving technique from the Toyota Production System.

Once the urgent and important impediments have been addressed, you should add lightweight systems to enable you to continue to resolve impediments as they arise in your new remote setting. Here are some tips.

  • Ensure your daily stand-up includes a pointed question about impediments or blockers. Yes, this is one of the standard stand-up questions, but consider rewording it to draw extra attention to it during this time.
  • Ensure your Scrum Master has a place to keep track of these team-level impediments and makes their work on impediment resolution visible to the team.
  • If your company has multiple Scrum teams, general impediment resolution can most likely benefit many, if not all, of them. Help improve your company’s overall efficiency by increasing cross-team communication and considering scaled scrum approaches. (We practice Scrum Inc.’s Scrum@Scale at Alley.)
  • Implement regular meetings among Scrum Masters (either scrum of scrums–type meetings or communities of practice) so they can share the impediments facing their teams and how they are resolving them.

Your team may be blocked from working together in person, but they shouldn’t be blocked from working.

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This is the second of a five-part series, Locked out of the Scrum Room, on taking an agile practice remote:

Because we are a remote company and an agile organization that generally follows Scrum Inc.’s Scrum at Scale program, we think we could be useful to other agile organizations that are finding themselves temporarily working from home during this challenging time. We’re happy to answer questions and provide guidance and assistance as we are able.

We are also devoting pro bono time to assisting non-profit organizations in this transition, whether they use Scrum or not.

Let us know if we can help, or check out our e-book on remote work.

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