Impediments Cup For The Win

The Impediments Cup is an agile retrospective technique for identifying impediments and deciding which one to focus on. (Impediments cup is halfway down the linked page on the left side under “Decide What To Do”)

The really neat thing about this technique is that you can use it effectively:

  • With distributed teams
  • To draw quiet team members into the discussion
  • As a team building exercise
  • To improve on the emotional intelligence of your team

Read on for how to do it…

About the Cup

The impediments cup is like a sports tournament bracket. You get all the impediments, pair them up and then have them compete against each other until you only have one impediment remaining.

It is a very simple (yet powerful) technique provided you do a few things that aren’t immediately obvious when you look at the instructions.

Here’s my quick summary of how to run the cup (for the TL;DR / BLUF crowd). If you want the details on why this way works for engagement and team building, keep reading after the instructions.

How To Run An Effective Impediments Cup Retrospective With Distributed Teams

  1. Bring 2 – ask each team member to bring two impediments to the meeting
  2. Present Impediments – ask each team member to describe their impediments
  3. Create Brackets – mix up the impediments, then pair them up in a tournament bracket
  4. Run The First Bracket – ask each team member which impediment is more important and why they think it is more important
  5. Rinse And Repeat – keep working through the brackets until you have a single winner
  6. Create Next Actions – for the winner, list the actions the team will take in the next iteration to address the impediment

Key Points

  • Don’t generate the list of impediments in the meeting, have the team do it beforehand
  • You can easily use a tool like Trello to run the retrospective for distributed teams by setting up a column for each round of voting and either dragging or copying the winners to the next column
  • For maximum engagement and to help your team improve their communication, don’t let them vote in the tool, have them explain their vote out loud

Key Benefits

  • People will eventually vote against their own ideas and explain why (demonstrating an ability to see things from another’s perspective…which is empathy)
  • As people explain why they voted for one impediment or another, an observant scrum master will start hearing other impediments or areas for improvement to file away for later
  • Your most quiet team members will end up speaking at least 4-5 times in the retrospective
  • Your most disengaged team members will have actively participated in the selection of the biggest impediment to tackle, generating buy-in

Soft Skills/Teambuilding Benefits

As we mature in our understanding of agile we move from focusing on process to principles. At first we want to “do scrum” the “right way.” But once we have the basics down, we start to realize there is much more to agile than standups and retrospectives. We find ourselves going back to the manifesto and the principles.

In the same way, as our teams mature they need to move from a focus on techniques to focusing on emotional intelligence, communication and relationships.

If you’ve got a team that is doing the basic techniques well and you want to improve their soft skills, this retrospective (when optimized for EQ) can help them grow in new ways.

Improved Engagement

Brainstorming out loud or even seeing other people’s ideas while you are brainstorming can reduce the number and quality of ideas an individual generates. (See here, here and here)

And that’s just on average. I’m willing to bet if the individual is more quiet or introverted or simply newer to the group, they will feel even less comfortable contributing in a group setting.

Improving engagement has been on my mind recently and this retrospective has it in spades, depending on how you run it.

Having people generate 2 impediments on their own is a great way to draw in the quiet team members.

Then, once the group meets, having each person describe their impediments generates engagement. Within a structured setting like this, I’ve never had someone unwilling to describe their own ideas.


Having each person describe what they see as the biggest impediments to the team gives insight into what that person values.

And by having each person explain why they voted for one impediment over another gives insight into how that person thinks.

Understanding what your teammates value and how they think is a huge advantage when trying to create highly performing teams.

Another great example of empathy that I’ve seen using this technique is when people start deciding to vote against their own ideas.

When someone says, “This idea is mine, but now that we’ve talked about it, yours is better” they have just put their own needs behind the needs of the team.

Putting the team’s needs before an individual’s is a key behavior we want to reinforce because of what it means in other areas. If I put the team first, of course I’ll be willing to help test. If I put the team first, of course I’ll help run the standup when the scrum master is on vacation…and so on.

That is why this technique caught my attention. Not only does it serve as an effective retrospective technique, but it can also strengthen the connections within the team. And it can increase engagement and empathy. And once a team is past the basics, engagement and empathy are how the team keeps improving and growing stronger over time.