Make your standups not suck

In the past five to eight years, as I’ve worked in a lot of big corporations that have “gone agile,” I’ve been in hundreds of daily standup meetings. Many of them have been great. Many more have completely sucked.

Let me talk about the suckage and how to deal with it.

First, fundamentally: actually standing up

First thing, if your standups are honestly too long for people to be standing up comfortably, they are too long. “Standup” isn’t just a cute name. The idea really is to make it super fast and get back to work.

Maybe I’m a little biased in this because of this worn cartilage in my left knee that gets rough when I stand still for too long.

How to deal with standups that run more than about ten minutes:

  • Consider a smaller team. Maybe five to seven “pigs” is best.
  • Quiet the chickens. If you’re observing as a stakeholder, great! But this is not your meeting. Just listen.
  • Stick to three questions. Everything, and I mean everything, comes back to the three questions.
    • What did you get done yesterday?
    • What are you trying to get done before tomorrow?
    • What are your obstacles?

Second: keep it on track

A pattern I keep seeing is when the team lead, or more often that person’s manager, has decided that someone’s work isn’t up to par and uses the standup as a way to focus pressure on that person. That’s bad management style in its own right but it also makes the meeting itself less useful. If you use the gathering to point out how many defects one team member is generating, everyone else will minimize their defects to avoid being similarly called out. If you bust one team member for overshooting an estimate, the rest of team will tend to pad their estimates. And so on.

To eliminate this particular kind of suckage, make sure you’re talking about today’s work today. That’s all the standup is for. Discipline, correction, motivation, and evaluation are not on the agenda. It is for planning one day’s work. You want another meeting, make another meeting. Don’t impose on this one.

Finally: the team owns the sprint

Whether or not you’re organized as an actual Scrum team, team ownership is always a good idea. If something’s not going well, the individual team members are almost always aware of that first. If you’re doing it right, they have already started to make adjustments even without the formal intervention of a standup meeting. When that’s the case, and it usually is, less management is probably better.

If you find yourself dictating solutions, you’re undermining the team’s ability to solve its own problems. Resist the impulse. Step back. Give the team at least a couple of standup cycles (which means two or three work days) to figure it out before you consider imposing a plan. At worst, the time “wasted” this way will pay off in education and experience.

Summary

Again citing the Agile Principles: Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. More support, less intervention, fewer distractions. That’s how to make your standups not suck.

 

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