good robots do what they're told

Daily Standups Don't Work

At some point, standups have stopped working for me. They’ve certainly moved away from the original intention to improve collaboration and communication. I’m not sure I can put my finger on why, but I’m just not getting much out of them any more. It’s led me to think that standups per se just don’t work. At least in most of the environments I’ve encountered. So I’ve been thinking about what could work in their place and I think its just to talk more.

Typical Problems

Some typical problems I see again and again include standups taking too long; standups becoming a tool to chase progress or apply pressure and attendees glazing over when it’s not their turn to speak. Jason Yip talks about some other common problems. The biggest problem that I see though, is that standups have become more about the “status update” than communication and collaboration.

It’s Not A Status Update

If your standup is more about the status update than anything else, the rot may have already set in. It’s a shame the first sentence of the wikipedia page defines a standup as being a “status update”. In fact, nearly every page on the subject talks about it in terms of a “status update”. Nonsense.

In my view, it should be about communication and collaboration. The trouble with “status update” as a phrase, is that it has dark undertones. It has reporting connotations and can promote a command and control relationship. It’s pretty common for team leads, project managers or other stakeholders to coerce the standup into a tool for reporting. That’s what the board is for.

When it becomes a tool to apply pressure or push a project management agenda, things can get pretty negative. Good team leads, managers and stakeholders will use the board for status updates and go round the team individually as they need to. It’s all too easy to condense this into an intense experience at standup but it won’t tell them the whole story. Those in project management roles have to work hard to preserve the spirit of the standup and get management information in other ways.

Communication & Collaboration

If the spirit of the standup is really about communication and collaboration, why don’t we apply the same principles we apply with Extreme Programming, namely, to apply it all the time? I’d prefer standups to be more organic. Why not jump up and start a conversation when you feel like it? Grab anyone who looks up. Why prescribe a meeting first thing, when you may not have anything to talk about? When you’re working in the same physical proximity, it’s natural to overhear and contribute to the conversations around you. Standup, get involved.

The standard three report items feel a bit arbitrary and anyway, they’re really intended as a guide, not a mantra. I’d go further than that and suggest that even the idea of reporting at standup is the thin end of the wedge. The three questions promote the idea of reporting when we should be promoting the idea of collaboration.

In the same way, wouldn’t it be nice if you pair with whomever, whenever the time is right? Rather than move board avatars around in the morning at standup to organising pairs, wouldn’t it be nice to seek a collaborator as you need to and change them often? A bit like socks.

The Good Bits

Of course, none of this may be ringing true for you. Standups might be the perfect forum for communication for your team. Despite the title, I don’t mean to suggest it plainly never works. I just want to emphasise how difficult it is to get it to work and avoid the pitfalls. There may even be a simpler, less leading mechanisms to promote communication and keep team focus. I’m talking here about natural conversation and social cohesion.

To offer at least a token effort at balance; even in a dysfunctional standup, I can still find a few things useful. I do like to start the day with a focusing session. A bit like GTD where you ask “what is my immediate next action?”. It can also be a convenient time to pair up for the day and unfortunately, it does work as a status update tool for management.

That’s All Folks

It’s down to individuals in the team to engage. Forcing a standup meeting isn’t going to do that. Individuals should be nosey, keeping an eye on the board and the backlog. They don’t need to stand in front of the board and watch cards go up or move to the right in a daily standup to do that. They don’t need to listen to a synopsis of yesterday’s work if they were listening to it unfold yesterday. Management need another forum if they’re hijacking your standup and as an engaged individual, it’s up to you to champion that change.

Like a lot of the agile practices, its easy to fall into the habit of the daily standup without stopping to consider why we’re doing so. If you really don’t think you’re getting much out of it, stop and question things. Following agile practices mechanically isn’t the goal in itself; it’s about more than that.

If you fancy shaking things up, Todd Charron’s created an interactive course with practical ideas to improve your standup. Check it out.

Over to you...