Sometimes, stuff gets in the way of doing our jobs. But, for Project Managers, impediments, obstacles, and blockers are our day-to-day job.
If you don’t know how to deal with them…
Or, worse, if you find them uncomfortable frustrations that you’d rather avoid…
Then maybe, Project Management isn’t for you.
And the Project Management Institute (PMI) has recognized this. In its new, more pragmatic Project Management Professional (PMP) exam (from 2 January 2021), this forms one part of the syllabus.
Among 35 tasks PMI will examine PMP candidates upon, one (Domain I Task 7) is:
Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers for the Team
PMI suggests you need to know how to:
- Determine critical impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team
- Prioritize critical impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team
- Use network to implement solutions to remove impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team
- Reassess continually to ensure impediments, obstacles, and blockers for the team are being addressed
On the face of it, there isn’t much to this: it’s just dealing with stuff. But, to me, there is a big overlap here with Issue Management – the topic of Domain II Task 15 and what I often refer to as the PMBOK Guide’s Missing Knowledge Area.
Our Approach to the Topic
In this article, we will look at how to address and remove project impediments, obstacles, and blockers. We’ll look at:
- What does PMI mean by Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers?
- The Basic Approach to Project Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
- The Core Attitude for Helping Your Team to Overcome Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
- Informal Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
- Formal Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
- Specific Agile Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
What does PMI mean by Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers?
The 6th edition of the PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide) does not define either Impediment, Obstacle, or Blocker.
Helpfully, but not very, the new PMBOK 7th edition steps in…
Impediment. An obstacle that prevents the team from achieving its objectives. Also known as a blocker.A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 7th edition
Project Management Institute, 2021
So, is Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers for the Team a pleonasm – unnecessary use of words? Or a tautology – using words that merely repeat the meaning of others you have already used?
Well, in common usage, these words are similar – as PMBOK 7 implies:
- Impediments impede your way
- Obstacles obstruct your way
- Blockers block your way
So, to justify this title, the official PMI training materials go through some hoops. From my notes to the PMP course I took, with an ATP (the GreyCampus PMP course, which I recommend), the PMI defines:
something that slows down or hinders progress
something you need to move, go around, avoid, or overcome, using a strategy
something that causes work to stop
[Any errors in understanding or transcription from the PMI’s materials and the ATP Instructor are my own]
So… clear as mud.
If I had to guess, I’d speculate the PMBOK 7 authors were taking a pop at this nonsense!
And I shall use the three terms, impediments, obstacles, and blockers, interchangeably.
The Basic Approach to Project Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
Whenever you encounter any of these different things (😉) you will first want to gather relevant members of your team, to understand what is going on. You’ll consider things like:
- What the issue is
- Its impact
- What the team has already tried, to resolve the problem
- Who needs to know about it
- Who will take responsibility for leading the resolution process
- What steps you can take
- And how you will follow-up, including communicating to stakeholders and documenting lessons learned
Two essential processes suggest themselves:
- Problem Solving
A good project team will establish baseline priority levels, which they will base on considerations such as:
- Potential delay
- Criticality of tasks delayed
- Dependencies that the delay impacts
- Stakeholders affected
- Ability of team members to revert to other, constructive, tsks
It will help to document this, alongside examples.
This will allow you to evaluate any impediments, obstacles, and blockers quickly and prioritize your attention.
Agile Prioritization Tools
Agile methods offer some useful tools for prioritization, such as:
- Fist of Five
Team members spontaneously show 1 to five fingers representing their own assessment of the priority. The PM then allocates the priority level based on an average (mean or median)
- Planning Poker
We have a video on this process, that uses scalings of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…
- T-Shirt Sizes
This approach ranks an issue as Small (S), Medium (M), Large (L), Extra Large (XL), or XXL.
Quite simply, when a project runs into numerous obstacles, the team deals with them in priority order, allocating resources according to capabilities and priorities.
Problem-solving is a big topic in itself. So, rather than try to rush it, to fit into a small part of this larger article, I’ll direct you to our resources.
The place to start is with our extended article: Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach.
Other resources you may find helpful:
- Two Approaches to Solving Project Problems | Video
- What is Design Thinking? Human-centered Problem-solving | Video
Isn’t This Just Issue Management?
Ahh… Yes. To a large extent, we are talking about Issue Management here.
I called this the PMBOK’s missing process, or Knowledge area, and we have a detailed article: Issue Management: All You Need to Know about PMBoK’s Missing Process for an in-depth assessment.
Curiously, the same Examination Content Outline (ECO) that added Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers to the PMP syllabus, also added Manage Project Issues (Domain II, Task 15).
PMI suggests you need to know:
- Recognize when a risk becomes an issue
- Attack the issue with the optimal action to achieve project success
- Collaborate with relevant stakeholders on the approach to resolve the issues
You may also like our video: How to Anticipate Future Budget Challenges to Your Project.
The Core Attitude for Helping Your Team to Overcome Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
Your team will desperately want to do a good job. So, your role is to make it as easy for them to do this, as possible.
This is an approach to leadership, called Servant Leadership. In the video below, I refer to the role of a Servant Leader as providing rations (the things a team needs) and a raincoat (protecting the team from distractions).
So, a Servant Leader is a leader who sees their role as being the servant of the people who follow them. Their job is to:
- Provide their followers with what they need, while
- Removing obstacles from their way
This means tackling the blockers and distractions that will prevent your team from performing at their best. And it means taking on those burdens yourself, so they don’t have to. This will free them up, to be as efficient and effective as they can be.
As you’d expect, we have an in-depth article on Servant Leadership: How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team.
Informal Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
Most of the day-to-day obstacles and impediments you’ll be dealing with only require an informal, ad hoc, approach. Let’s look at the two principal components that make up your daily unblocking approach:
Communicating Impediments to Progress
You’ll need to meet stakeholders frequently, to keep them up-to-date. But don’t overload them. There is a fine balance between:
- openness and transparency about issues, on the one hand, and
- creating unnecessary distractions, concern, and workload, on the other
Keeping your team informed is, in many ways, easier. Firstly, they are professionals. So, they both:
- Need to know what is going on
- Understand that an obstacle is just that – it’s not the end of the world(or even of the project)!
I recommend you keep a part of a large whiteboard or noticeboard to note impediments and issues that are ongoing. You can then ostentatiously cross them out when the matter is resolved. You can also use initials to let everyone know who the point-person (or Single Point of Contact – SPOC) is for the issue.
This ‘Impediments Board’ can be a physical board (my own preference) or part of your team collaboration software stack.
Using Meetings to Shift Obstacles to Your Project’s Progress
There’s a myth that daily stand-up meetings are an artifact of agile projects alone. Nonsense. I was using daily stand-ups before agile (or even Scrum) was a twinkle in the Agile Alliance’s eye!
These stand-up meetings are usually at the start of the working day and include a discussion of obstacles people are encountering.
Requests – Suggestions – Offers
A great way to end the meeting is with a round of requests, suggestions, and offers. In this, anyone can make a request of the group, because they have a blocker in their own work. In response, the facilitator calls first for suggestions. These need to be constructive ideas. Then, the facilitator will call for a round of offers of help, support, or resources.
Formal Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
The formal approach in predictive and hybrid projects – and within some agile teams is an Issue Log, or Issue Register. This takes a similar form to a risk register. Indeed, it is often a single, combined document. This is my preference, with issues being risks with 100% likelihood.
Some Project Managers also like the idea of a log of Risks, Issues, Decisions, and Actions (RIDA).
You would supplement this with a program of formal risk reviews. This can be at regular intervals or linked to key milestones in your project.
To keep on top of progress on issues and obstacles, I recommend you close your project team meetings with a ‘Triple-A Close’.
- Summarise what has been said and agreed
- Formally note any decisions – in precise terms, if necessary
- Actions and Allocations
- Who will do what?
- Go around the table
- Get confirmation from each person
- State the next steps
- Signpost the next meeting
Always… (One more A)
Thank people for their attendance and attention
Specific Agile Approaches to Address and Remove Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
There are two formal processes in an agile project that can really help with clearing blockers:
- Backlog Assessment
Although the purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to find ways to improve quality and effectiveness, one way to do this is to understand the obstacles you faced and how you could tackle them going forward. Because, a sprint retrospective is a chance for your team to assess itself and find ways to improve during the next Sprint.
And, before each sprint, we need to select the work we are going to undertake. And, any impediments will simply get in the way of that work.
So, you need to assess your backlog and any already-committed activities in the context of known obstacles.
This can be either a:
- Proactive response to known risks and likely blockers
- Reactive response to known impediments
Responses include either:
- Including work on the obstacle as a part of the sprint
- Reducing drawdown from the backlog to make time to work on the blocker
- Select backlog items that are not affected by known impediments
Please Tell Us About Your Approaches to Impediments, Obstacles, and Blockers
As always, I am keen for you to share your own ideas and experience. And I will respond to every comment.