If you have ever worked with a software or agile team before, you have probably done a daily stand-up. In this blog post, I share my thoughts on why daily stand-ups are useful and some tips on how to run them well.
What is a stand-up?
Stand-ups are regular meetings for the team to synchronise. They are usually
- held daily
- last 15 minutes or less (the idea behind standing up is that the lack of a chair encourages people to be brief.)
- combined with less regular meetings such as planning, retrospectives and show & tells
You might have called this the ‘daily scrum’ if you’re working with the scrum methodology.
Why are stand-ups useful?
Coordination. Team efforts usually require different people to work on different parts of a problem. Stand-up is a forum for them to coordinate their efforts.
Focussing on the right things. Misunderstandings are abundant when groups of humans communicate. Communicating progress and priorities every day reduces the risk that people will waste lots of time by prioritising the wrong thing or solving the problem in a sub-optimal way.
Unblocking progress. Stand-ups draw attention to work that is blocked or that someone is struggling with. This enables the team to swarm on the problem, maximise flow and get work back on track.
Team building. We form strong social bonds with people we see and speak to every day. Stand-ups are an important opportunity for face time with the team (especially for remote or hybrid teams).
Types of stand-up
This is the most well-known stand-up format. Each team member takes it in turns to talk about things like:
- What they did yesterday
- What they’ll do today
- Anything that’s blocking them or they need help with
Teams often vary the questions that they answer in stand-up, but the key point with the round-robin is that each person takes turns to speak.
What order do people go in? A pre-defined order helps everything to go a bit quicker. Encouraging people to self-organise by nominating each other or volunteering themselves is usually a bit slower, but keeps people more engaged. On one team, we had a cuddly toy that we threw to each other during stand-up when it was someone’s turn to speak. That kept people on their toes!
The big problem with the round-robin approach is that it creates too much of a focus on what individuals are doing, rather than what is moving the product forward. People often feel a need to say lots of things to show how busy they are, but that makes the meeting less valuable to everyone else on the team.
Another problem is that all too often people zone out. While others are speaking, people are thinking about what they will say, and thus not properly listening to others.
Walk the board
Instead of going person by person, another approach is to go task by task. For me, this usually means starting on the right-hand side of the task board and working our way left, asking for updates on each item.
The structure for a walk-the-wall stand-up might be:
- What did we achieve yesterday (done)
- What are we blocked on (blocked)
- What needs reviewing (review)
- What are we working on now (in progress)
- Is there anything on the priority list people plan to start on today?
- Is there anything anyone needs help with?
- Any other business
This is usually my preferred approach, as it
- keeps teams focussed on the actions rather than the individuals
- encourages team members to maintain an up-to-date task-tracking system
Two problems with this approach
- it can lead to cluttered task management systems as team members know they can only speak about tasks that get spoken about
- sometimes, the task management system tracks work at a finer level of detail than is necessary for discussion at a stand-up. This can lead to stand-up meetings taking longer and going into more detail than necessary
In an asynchronous stand-up, team members write their updates into some sort of system (usually Slack or Teams).
This is an excellent substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Occasionally, stand-up has to be cancelled because some people have a meeting clash. When that happens, teams I have worked on often decide to do an asynchronous stand-up instead.
The best practice for an asynchronous update is for each topic to be its own separate post. That enables a targeted conversation to take place in the comments.
I have yet to work in a team that wants to make a regular habit of asynchronous stand-ups. This is partly because the social element of stand-ups gets a bit lost when people do written updates alone. One of the teams I am working with right now is fully remote. For them, the social elements to stand-up are an important one. They like to have a bit of a chat and share a few jokes before diving into the work. For them, this is a substitute for those waterfall conversations that happen naturally in an office environment.
Other things to consider
How to handle questions, discussions or issues
Stand-ups are a forum for identifying problems – not for solving them. My rule of thumb is that if someone asks a question in the daily stand-up, and it takes more than one round of interaction between the people asking and answering the question to resolve, then that discussion should be parked and picked up again after stand-up. This keeps stand-up brief and frees up anyone who doesn’t need to be in that discussion to get back to their priorities.
Holding stand-ups at non-disruptive times
I am a massive fan of encouraging teams and individuals to organise their diaries in ways that maximise uninterrupted focus time. Some of the best ways to do this is to hold meetings:
- at the beginning or end of each day
- adjacent to other meetings
- at times of day that make sense to most people on the team
As stand-up is usually a daily meeting, it is critical that this meeting minimises disruption. My current team does stand-up at 9 a.m. every morning. I am not a fan, as it means doing my morning swim in a more crowded swimming pool. But the team love it, as it allows them to get all their coordinating work out of the way in the morning, and allows them to focus throughout the late morning and afternoon. Every team is different, and each is best off finding different patterns that work for them.
Not holding stand-ups every day / for 15 minutes / whilst standing up
I always encourage teams to start by doing a stand-up every day. However, some teams have decided against that over time. One team I am working with prefers bi-weekly syncs for 30 minutes instead. As long as the goals of stand-up are met somehow, then this is fine. As far as I am concerned, there is no rule saying that stand-ups have to be daily, for 15 minutes, and done whilst standing up. Teams should be encouraged to reflect upon and regularly improve their ways of working.
Where to hold a stand-up
Before the advent of remote working, my answer to this question would always be that the team should meet in the team space.
Nowadays, some or all team members are usually remote. It is very hard to make a team space (or indeed, any space) work effectively for hybrid meetings. So nowadays, most stand-ups happen online with everybody dialling in from a quiet space on their own devices.
Everyone on the team should attend stand-up. People involved in the work but not full-time members of the team might also benefit from attending all or some of the time (eg. to stay up to date with a project they are involved in.)
I’m wary about people not involved in the work or only loosely involved from coming to the daily stand-up, as it can mean the team has to take longer to explain things to get them up to speed or disrupt the team’s stand-up processes. More people also usually means longer meetings. I prefer to keep stakeholders only loosely involved in the work up to date on a weekly or fortnightly cadence by a combination of week notes and the regular show & tell.
Making the most of habits (and breaking them from time to time)
Good habits help us do the right thing, regularly without effort. Doing stand-up at a consistent time/place and following best practices is a good habit to get into.
But sometimes, doing the same thing every day can encourage people to get distracted and zone out.
To keep things interesting and keep people fresh and engaged, I look to do stand-ups in different ways from time to time. For example, we might do a round-robin stand-up most days. But once a week or fortnight we might try to walk the wall or do an asynchronous stand-up.
Hearing about a blocker for the first time at stand-up
If someone encounters a problem that they need help solving, they shouldn’t wait until stand-up before talking to the team about it. A lot can be achieved by a high-performing team in 24 hours!
Don’t be afraid to say “no update”
One of the big anti-patterns with all forms of stand-up is that people feel they have to say lots of things to appear busy. This is a waste of everyone’s time. The less unimportant things we say, the easier it is to hear the important things loud and clear.
Leaders can encourage good behaviour by saying “no update” when they have no update to give and encouraging team members to do the same. Nobody needs to hear a list of all the meetings someone attended or about all the line management work they had to do, so just say “no update” or “work in progress” instead.
Inappropriately long updates
If team members talk too much too often, I might try to start a discussion at retrospective about the right level of detail to go into at stand-up. I might also get in touch with individuals to provide some 121 feedback when appropriate.
If a team member is making a regular habit of being late, it is probably worth chatting to them directly to find out why. Stand-up should be brief. Starting a 10-15 minute meeting 5 minutes is not a good habit to get into.
Whoever facilitates stand-up should work hard to make themselves replaceable. I recommend either rotating the facilitator or encouraging team members to self-organise to make stand-up happen.
The facilitator or team leader should also watch out for participants reporting to them rather than each other. Stand-up should be by the team and for the team – not a method of reporting back to the leader.
I often deliberately stay very quiet on stand-ups to encourage the team to self-organise without me. I also minimise eye contact when people are talking to me to encourage them to talk to each other rather than report to me.
Great things to overhear in stand-up (especially if it’s not the facilitator who says it)
“Let’s get started.”
“Shall we take this discussion offline?”
“I’ve solved a similar problem before. Let’s chat after stand-up.”
“I am blocked on this. Can anyone help?”
“Here is a new risk I have spotted with our current approach.”