No blockers

Photo of a laptop with a virtual meeting happening

My favorite Scrum event is the Daily Scrum. While often overshadowed by its flashier siblings — the dramatic demos of the Sprint Review or iterative improvements from a productive Retrospective — the Daily Scrum is essential for a Scrum team’s successful delivery of their Sprint commitments.

Previously known as the exclusionary Daily Standup (not everyone we work with is capable of standing up), the Scrum Guide defines its purpose as a time for teams to “inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and adapt the Sprint Backlog as necessary.” Sounds great, but what does that really mean?

While arguably the most familiar Scrum event, the Daily Scrum is often misunderstood, bogged down beneath the weight of people’s Scrum baggage — preconceived notions that the Daily is a status meeting wherein teammates state three things:

  1. What was worked on
  2. What will be worked on next
  3. What blockers exist to the work

If the above is a good summation of your typical Daily Scrum, you are working from an older understanding of the Scrum Guide (these three questions were phased out with the 2017-2020 updates). This is good news, since you now have a wonderful opportunity to completely rework your Daily so it delivers actual value, rather than ticks on a now out-of-date checklist.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with this framing, per se. While I don’t think Scrum Masters ought to explicitly ask these three questions, I lean into the luggage and accept that Scrum baggage is a real thing. If my team needs to go through these verbal motions to get to the actual point, I am willing to let them do that (within our 15-minute timebox, of course). I just won’t further solidify the concept by actually saying the “Big Three” out loud. 

Still, if I could eradicate one of the questions from our collective consciousness, it would be the last one – the one about blockers. The sentiment  behind the question is sound: teams want to identify what stands in the way of their work so the Scrum Master can facilitate its removal. But in practice, people identify blockers as something that completely halts work and so, by reporting their presence, the whole team is already on the backfoot, trying to catch up and regain forward momentum.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that true blockers are rarely encountered by even semi-seasoned Scrum teams.

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World He Didn’t Have Any Blockers – Keyser Scrümze

Gif of man looking at an investigation board, as it zooms in, it says "No Blockers"

That’s not to say that, at times, Sprint work doesn’t grind to a halt because Larry didn’t send over the files he promised he would the day before. That happens all the time, even if you don’t have a Larry at work. Even with the best of planning to mitigate extra-team dependencies, Sprints can stall out in places due to outside circumstances. But more often than not, blockers don’t confound Scrum teams. And so, when someone reports they have no blockers, they aren’t saying anything of value.

I shy away from using the b-word and, instead, frame my Dailies by identifying risks within our Sprint, not outside of it. What commitments are at risk of not being met by the end of the Sprint? What help do you need to get the work done? What help can you lend to the rest of the team to accomplish the same? By steering the conversation away from problems outside our control toward opportunities to collaborate, teams will excel.

Don’t let your teams get lost in the jargon of Agile. If people insist on reporting on the presence or absence of blockers, then broaden its definition as a team, including all the little ways we can help one another each and every day. Sometimes, while not blocked, a deliverable can be completed faster (and better) by someone asking for a swarm to work on it jointly. But if the team is only focused on giant boulders blocking their path and progress right now then the Daily Scrum will have little value.

As with all things Scrum, its events are an opportunity for interaction, designed to help your team connect and do their best work. Remember to take a step back from the procedural nature of these meetings to ask yourself if they’re set up in a way that truly provides value to your team and furthers your shared goals. Checking boxes can feel great, but it can also distract us from the point of the work in front of us. The Daily Scrum provides space to tackle that work as a team — so take some time to think about if (or how) your current iteration holds up to the challenge.