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Stop the Jam, Start Drawing

8 Steps to clearing a Jam

By Andrew Diodati

Senior Solutions Architect, BreakFree Solutions

Did you know that it’s difficult for the human cognitive brain to retain more than 4 things at a time? And that takes memorizing. Have you ever been in a situation where your Scrum team needs to find a solution, for example you are mid-sprint and there are some implementation details to be worked through, but the impediments seem to be growing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track of? We call this a “Jam”. A Jam in a nutshell, is when you’re stuck talking and not doing. It can happen for a variety of reasons: too many tasks or topics, perfectionism, politics, and ambiguity are all sources of a Jam. Where does the discussion end and Jam start? Hard to say, but you know it when you feel it. I feel it once I’ve realized the conversation has shifted from insight or action, and into either previously covered topics or “small picture” stuff that really doesn’t matter.

In order to solve these issues, we recommend drawing it out. Drawing a picture provides so much clarity because there’s a visual focal point. It teases out the assumptions, and of course, a picture is worth a thousand words. Stop the jam. Start Drawing.

Here are 8 steps to stopping a Jam:
  1. Recognize you’re in a Jam: Are you and your Scrum team in a Jam? Are there too many things going on at once that it’s difficult to identify where to go next? The problems are swirling together causing a Jam.

  2. Will drawing help? Ask the right questions to conclude if drawing will help. Is this a problem that your team needs to break down, but is too confusing to talk it out? Determine whether you can find the solution in the current state of the conversation. If there are too many things going on at once that are overwhelming and confusing the team, it’s time to hit the drawing board.

  3. Determine the number of topics: How many impediments is your team coming across? Is it more than one? If it is, drawing can help separate what tasks need to get done for each problem to be fixed.

  4. Focus the group on the visual media (physical/virtual whiteboard): If you have access to a whiteboard with your team, draw it there. If remotely, we recommend using an application such as Mural, or for collaborate purposes, try Explain Everything, or Invision Freehand. There are a lot of online collaborative whiteboards at your disposal.

  5. Initiate the drawing: Visualize the impediments. Add notes and caveats directly on the board next to the drawing. Break it down so it’s easier for you and your team. Draw out the problems and how it gets you to the solution. The idea is to not get stuck on the nitty gritty of what to draw, so if that’s the case, these are some organizational tactics I’d recommend trying: Flow Chart, Network Topology, Finite-State Machines.

  6. Verifying the understanding: Are they understanding the process? Is there something we’re missing? Is there any confusion? Is it clear what our action items will be? Make sure you’re checking in with your team and answering all questions that arise. This is a huge part of whether or not the success of this outcome will work. Make sure your team is engaged, assisting in the drawing, and following thoroughly. This will help ensure that the next step will not be tricky.

  7. Identify Action Items: This is one of the most important steps. If ignored, the entire practice would have been wasted. This is the whole reason we do all of this. Make sure to add clear context, target dates, people, and any other relevant information. You can even track this a story or a subtask within your backlog.

  8. Summarize: This could be a whole blog post in of itself, but following through with your team after the whiteboarding is equally as important as during. Sending out a visual of the drawing, a summary, and action items will make it clear what needs to get done leaving the discussion. It keeps people accountable to their tasks and provides clarity for areas the rest of the team.

Being stuck in a Jam isn’t easy and is a normal problem to face, but now you have a tactic to help when your team needs to clear a Jam. While it may seem simple, I’ve noticed that these steps have saved us multiple times. It not only has helped grow our organization, but our strength as a team during our sprints.

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