I’ve been thinking a lot about impediments lately. OK, maybe obsessing is a better word. I know it’s the word my wife would use. Note to self: do not refer to the kids as impediments…in public.
I was on a trip recently that involved a really long drive from Seattle down to Northern California. That’s rougthly 12 hours of quality time behind the wheel. It gives a guy a lot of time to think. Somewhere around the time that I hit the Columbia Gorge, I started to obsess about what I had forgotten when packing for the trip. You know how it is, you start a mental checklist that goes something like this:
Of course as I was racking my brain to figure out what I had forgotten (I just knew that there had to be something) I was anticipating all that could go wrong on the trip. You know – all of the impediments that could possibly arise to ruin my vacation.
Of course I started to do what I think most of us do at that point. We tell that little voice in our heads to shut up. That insane, paranoid, little perfectionist voice telling us that things are not quite perfect. That’s when it hit me, that little voice was my perfectionist side trying to talk to me – trying to identify the impediments around me! That voice might be useful after all!
It was at that moment that I realized that perfection was part of the answer to finding impediments. You have to be sensitive to anything that might go wrong – anything that isn’t completely perfect in every way. It’s those imperfections that are the impediments that you are looking for. Of course that means you have to have some idea of what perfect looks like in your own mind. For example, we probably all have some notion of what the perfect apple looks like. Mine is red and shiny (Granny smith). So when I look at an apple, I’m comparing it to that prototypical perfect apple that I hold in my mind. That’s how I know the blemishes when I see them.
If we didn’t have that notion of the perfect apple, would we care if there was a blemish on our apple? Would we even notice at all?
So it turns out that this perfectionist mindset might be very useful to us in our search for ways to seek out impediments.
Of course much of what I have outlined is pretty old stuff. So old that a guy name Plato have a pretty similar idea. Plato described a metaphor for how we perceive things that seems to resonate here. He was talking about people sitting in a cave and watching shadows on the wall projected by actors in the entrance of the cave. Maybe the actors were creating impediments to the light entering the cave. Perhaps the shadows were the imperfect representation of the objects held up by the actors. Needless to say, these reflections on how we perceive the world are certainly nothing new.
So much of what I have been talking about is really concerned with having something to compare to. If you don’t have a plan, it’s hard to go wrong. As soon as you put together a plan, you are creating golden opportunities for impediments. If you still don’t see impediments, then add more detail to your plan. Sooner or later you will find the impediments – and size really doesn’t matter.
And what are these plans we are making anyway? They are standards that you use to compare the progress you are making on any given task with where you thought you should be. Just like the perfect apple in your head. Standards can be very useful for helping us to identify things that are impediments. They are a template for comparison with the reality that we are dealing with.
Of course, standards aren’t the end of the game. They have to continously evolve toward the ultimate goal (the one we can’t reach) perfection.
Now there was a project a little while ago that I refer to as the “Train Wreck” project. It wasn’t really the end of the world, but at the time it sure seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was amazing. Afterwards, I had ample time to reflect on the project and consider how I could avoid such a fiasco in the future. I realized that part of the problem lay in my sphere of influence. Naively speaking, I’m responsible for only a very small portion of the actual product release process. There are many activities both upstream and downstream from me that I have absolutely no control over.
I realized that even if the events within my own sphere of influence were absolutely perfect, the release could still be disrupted by either upstream or downstream events. In essence, there existed a class of impediments that were outside my field of control. If I can’t find impediments in my own small domain, I guarantee you that there are plenty more of them lurking both upstream and downstream of me in the process.
That’s when I started to take a much more active interest in seeing the big picture. I wanted to know more about all of the activities involved in getting a release out. Suddenly I cared passionately about things outside my control – in terms of how I could help others identify impediments to the overall release. This didn’t meant that I was somehow going on a control freak rampage. Not at all. Instead, I was simply broadening my own sphere of influence in order to provide myself with a different perspective – a perspective that enabled me to see more impediments.
As I’ve been keeping my daily log of impediments, I’ve noticed a strange thing happening. I have the list of today’s impediments – the impediments to the here and now. And then I have all of my historical impediments. Yesterday’s impediments and the day before and so on. And if I look into that history of impediments I start to see some repetition – impediments that come up over and over again. And if I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that the odds of seeing those impediments again in the future is pretty high. So now we have three separate classes of impediments that we can track:
Impediments to what we are doing right now
Possible future impediments yet to come
Of course those future impediments have a name in the project management world – risks. I find that very interesting. Using impediments I can actually tie risk management into Scrum. In fact, it’s sort of built right in. So not only are we tracking today’s impediments, but we are also keeping an eye on impediments that may arise in the future (risks).
I’ve had many discussions with people who had questions about how risks were incorporated into agile practices. At the time I didn’t have a good answer. Now I do.