5 Tips for Better Daily Stand-ups

03 October

Many teams I work with are already employing the agile basics, including working with user stories and kanban boards, but the most universal agile practice I see is the daily stand-up or scrum meeting. What’s surprising is the amount of complaining I hear about how ineffective these meetings can be. So, let’s first have a look at what the daily stand-up is all about, and then I’ll give you 5 tips on how to make your stand-ups really work for your team.


What is the daily stand-up?

The daily stand-up is a short meeting where teams come together to report progress on their work of the previous day and achievement plans for the coming day. To ensure the meeting is short, team members often stand while they are speaking. It is usually held in the morning as a way of getting the team started with the day’s work but can vary depending on the team and if team members are not co-located.

It is often called a scrum meeting because it comes out of the scrum variant of the agile way of working in a self-managing team. The term “scrum” was first used in relation to software development in a 1986 paper on better ways of approaching software development, with small fast-moving teams navigating complex, ever-changing environments. The “scrum” is a phase in a rugby game following a stop in the action. The teams reset for the next phase of play. Similar to the break between plays in American football, the teams have a quick chat to adjust their overall strategy and map out the near-term plans for the next set of actions. The play does not come from the side-lines; it comes from within the team, led by the captain and the on-field team leaders in the pack and in the backfield. There is more than one “leader” in a rugby team.

Tip #1 - Come prepared

I like to start my stand-ups at 9:15 am. That gives people time to get into the office, grab a cuppa, review yesterday’s work, plan today’s work, and write down what they will report in the stand-up. Yes, write it down. It is ineffectual and inconsiderate to the team to mumble and stumble something vague when it’s your turn to speak. It is simply professional to show up to meetings fully prepared. You should already know the answers to the standard “3 questions”:

1. What did I do yesterday?

2. What am I going to do today?

3. Do I have any impediments? 

Be ready to present those answers in a concise manner, providing the information that others need to know (and no more than that) as we prepare for our day.

My suggestion is to write down our answers to the 3 questions at the end of the workday when what you did today is fresh in your mind, and you are in a good position to plan the work for tomorrow. A side benefit is that this is a way of clearing your head for the day, so you leave the office knowing what the plan for tomorrow is. You will start the next day with clarity and planned intent. Of course, you may get news in the stand-up that blows that plan out of the water, but hey, that’s one of the reasons we have stand-ups! I also appreciate it when I see team members bring notebooks to the stand-up, so they can make notes about important information that comes up, in addition to using the notebook to record and track their 3 question entries.


Tip #2 - It’s not a status report, it’s a sync meeting

The idea is not for everyone to report the status of their work, although that is a subset of what we’re here for. The reason we get together once a day is to ensure that as a team, our individual efforts are staying synchronised. With all the dependencies that exist in a multi-disciplinary team, we want to make sure that we are delivering what our teammates need from us, and that we are getting from them what we need to do our work, that dependencies aren’t becoming blockers. We may have created a sequenced workflow plan for the iteration (or sprint, to use the scrum term), but we all know that these plans go out of whack as we tackle our work tasks or get interruptions that take us off track. The stand-up is where we double-check that the work sequence plan is still valid. We make quick adjustments to the plan, as needed. We don’t solve technical problems in a stand-up. We solve sync problems.


Tip #3 - Sharpen up the “3 Questions”

I like to sharpen up the standard three questions in a way that really focuses the team on achievement. Although principle number 7 of the Agile Manifesto states “Working software is the primary measure of progress,” there are other ways of framing finished components of work. Because agile teams are encouraged to work with a fully understood Definition of Done, the first two questions should be 1) What did I get Done yesterday? And 2) What am I going to get Done today. Far too often I hear people state in the stand-up that they “worked at something,” not what finished. 

Yes, what did I finish - what did I move from the “Doing” column on the Kanban board to the “Done” column. If you are working on a task that is longer than a day, can you break the overall task into sub-tasks that you can assign yourself to achieve in a day? There is great power in committing ourselves to short-term goals, and there is great satisfaction in achieving them. And by creating more specific descriptions about your work, you increase the synchronisation in the team about who is doing what. This is not a lengthy description of the work you’ll do, just the goals you’ll reach. 

The third question is one that is often not paid adequate attention. For one thing, the word “impediments” is a weird one. It implies an obstruction in the path before you, but we need to think more broadly than this. I often hear, “no impediments,” when the person is actually struggling with a problem that is defeating them. My preference for the third question is, “What help do I need to do my work?” This is where a team member can ask for advice or technical assistance, can complain that a RAM upgrade would speed up their work, or can note that they are waiting on information or decisions from others (a typical impediment). The daily stand-up does not spend time discussing this need. Just ask for assistance, and someone in the team either volunteers to talk after the meeting, or the scrum master makes a note to discuss after the meeting. It is the scrum master’s job to destroy (or diminish) all impediments.


Tip #4 - Police the chatter

As stated above, take discussions offline. The most common problem that teams have when trying to get their daily stand-up practice working efficiently is that there is just way too much talking going on in the stand-up meeting. Someone brings up a problem they’re struggling with, and a helpful person makes a suggestion about how to approach the problem, then someone else suggests another approach, and someone else points out the error in that thinking. And now you’ve devolved into a production meeting, not a stand-up. And perhaps only a third of the people in the stand-up know or care about the issue. This is an expensive waste of valuable people-time. (I often find that engineers hate the idea of stand-ups, let alone any meetings, due to the inefficiencies of meetings, but once they see how a daily stand-up can actually reduce the amount of time they need to spend in meetings, as opposed to follow-up 2-person or 3-person problem-solving sessions, they learn to value the stand-up). 

When a daily stand-up practice is first undertaken, it’s usually a scrum master who facilitates the session, but once a team has gotten into a good rhythm for running the stand-up, the meetings practically self-facilitate. Everybody shows up fully prepared, and we simply zip around the circle, sync up, have our follow-up side-discussions, then get back to our desks and back to work. But to me, the real sign that the team has taken ownership of the process is when I see that everyone in the group has embraced the notion that we all have both the right and the responsibility to police our stand-up etiquette. When I hear a junior team member chime in with, “Take it offline, guys,” or the offending parties catch themselves diving down a rabbit hole of solutionising and pull themselves back out, then I know this is a self-managing team that is serious about getting work done.


Tip #5 - Do the stand-up at your Kanban board

Many teams are already doing this, but if not, it’s highly recommended. Stand-ups and Kanban boards are made for each other. If a Kanban board is used well and is kept up to date, it is the perfect tool for helping the team stay in sync. If your sprint Kanban board is in a public area, and you can have the stand -up at the board, you are automatically looking at your record of Done and Will Do Today. And if you add a “blockers” swim lane to your board, you have a graphical representation of your impediments. 

Distributed and dispersed teams will have virtual stand-ups, with some or all team members connecting via Skype or Zoom or some other video-conferencing tool. We all know these are not as effective as being in the same room together, but we make do. If you are using a virtual Kanban board, like Trello or the boards available in Jira or Asana, you can share those boards on screen, but be careful that this does not slow down the overall meeting if you get into massaging the board a lot during the meeting. As with a physical Kanban board, it’s better to make all your adjustments prior to the meeting, so that you only focus on the current updated situation. Or make notes during the meeting so the scrum master can sync the virtual board after the meeting. 

So, there are five tips on improving the efficiencies of your daily stand-up. In a way, they all point in a similar direction - to high levels of professionalism. Come prepared, be concise, synchronise your activities, don’t waste other people’s time, track planned work to finished work. A good daily stand-up is a short burst of super focus that helps a team feel confident that they are starting a day of coordinated, ambitious achievement.


Post by Jim Simmons