Self-management: Removing blockers can sometimes be the blocker itself.

Helping others do the work may come with good intent. But have you ever wondered about the unintended consequences? It can be a trap for most people, especially those with high agency and bias for action.

As a scrum master in my earlier days who is well-tuned to “removing impediments/blockers” for the team, I am guilty of jumping in to resolve all my team’s blockers, happily doing it as part of my responsibility. The addiction is fuelled further with all the praises by my development team during our team retrospective, quoting how many things I have unblocked.

Oh yes, output of the team improved for sure in the short run… until I went on 1 week leave and realised the team can’t resolve their own issues without me.

My best intentions had left the team with an increased dependency and lessened their ability to solve their own problems — attributing to their lack of self-management.

This phenomenon isn’t new. It could be a colleague who fell into the trap of writing minutes for all the meetings, although she is not expected to but the secretariat is too inefficient at writing minutes. Or the kid in school we know who can’t fend for himself without his protective mother’s help.

In fact, it is so common that it has a system archetype called “Shifting the Burden/Addiction”.

The scrum master who jumps readily too quickly to remove all the blockers create the unintended consequences of reinforcing loop (R1), where the expectations of scrum master’s intervention erodes the team’s ability to self-manage. The fundamental solution in the long run is to reduce scrum master’s intervention and find opportunities to coach the team to resolve blockers on their own.

Finding opportunities to coach

I found the daily standup a good opportunity to coach the team. Whenever the team mentioned they have a blocker, I will ask them if it is something they can solve themselves, or it is something only I can unblock. This has served the team well as they developed the mental model to tap on their own inner resources first before reaching for help, increasing their self-management.

To act or not to act?

Understanding this system dynamic can sometimes be disheartening or discouraging for people. Who would have thought our best intentions could create more issues in the long-run? Inaction may actually have lesser costs. As the saying goes “Do less to do more”.

Between action and inaction, it is important to understand the dynamics at play, before you create a balanced intervention for a longer-lasting impact.

Do think twice about the next blocker you are helping to unblock!



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Nicholas Li

I enjoy agile ways of working, especially the more humanistic side of it.