How to Improve Stand-ups [Guest Post]

TL;DR: How to Improve Stand-ups for Co-Located and Distributed Teams

You’re at another painfully slow stand-up meeting. It feels like it’s never going to end. You begin thinking to yourself, “if I casually sneak out, will anyone notice?” Stand-ups don’t have to be this way. Learn how to improve stand-ups in this guest post from Jonathan Weber.

Age of Product: How to Improve Stand-ups by Jonathan Weber


The Nature of Stand-ups

Many agile experts preach the importance of following the agile framework closely or risk failure to your project. “Agile only works when following the structure exactly,” they say. And that’s where there’s a problem.

The Agile Manifesto was written primarily by software developers for software developers. Implementing it has been a tremendous improvement for many software teams and products. While this process has been successful, some teams may not have been so fortunate in utilizing the structure effectively.

Teams need the flexibility to make the framework efficient for them. Each team needs to put measures in place to make this happen.

For this article, we’ll take a look at some of the typical inefficiencies of the stand-up meeting. If you are not familiar with stand-up meetings, they are meetings in which team members get together on a daily basis to share their progress reports and any blockades hindering growth. We’ll assume since you’re reading the Age of Product, you have been to, or are at least familiar with what a stand-up meeting is. If not, you can learn more about stand-up meetings here.

Typical Stand-up Anti-patterns

People showing up late, or not at all

Team members come late to your stand-up meeting. Lack of attendance happens, but when it occurs on a daily basis, it becomes a problem for the whole team.

You may think this doesn’t matter. It does:

  • Excessive tardiness derails everyone’s attention, as well as disturbing the person speaking at the moment. The offender is not there to elaborate on “parking lot” or “blocking” problems.
  • Another effect is personal—they don’t get to listen to the other team member’s status because they weren’t there to hear it. Their absence undermines the team’s cohesion.
  • While showing up late is bad, not showing up at all is even worse. Team members need each other to keep tasks moving and help unblock (resolve issues with dependencies) each other.

However, before jumping to conclusions about the reason a team member is showing up late to stand-ups consider that you may just be holding your stand-up meeting at an awkward time of day. Everyone’s schedules are different, and the reason for tardiness could be anything from dropping a child off at school or another meeting overlapping the stand-up.

Team members speaking excessively about their status

Some people take the stage for their status update and give excessive details about their situation. If this becomes a habit for everyone, or even one person, it can lead to a long, unproductive meeting. Without pointing fingers, I am sure you can identify one or two people in your stand-up that already do this.

When trying to curb this issue, it’s important that the individual(s) who need to speak more concisely are briefed thoughtfully. What you do not want to do is make them feel like their presence is unappreciated. Make sure you communicate that this is one of the several solutions can help curb the over-sharers in your group:

  • Set a time limit for every individual.
  • Ask the person to “parking lot” the issue—taking it offline until after the stand-up meeting.

Going off topic

It’s easy for someone to go off topic while sharing their update. We have all been there—you start talking about something related to your day and then end up expanding on an irrelevant point.

Going off topic can be one of the largest inefficiencies in your stand-up if not controlled properly. It does not contribute to the conversation, nor give any solutions to any structural problems.

How to Improve Stand-ups for Everyone on the Team

Encourage Relevance

Something that I have experimented with a scrum team involves only sharing status information relevant to others in the group. In our case, this meant sharing only information regarding work relevant to others.

This means that people do not share their status or blockers unless it is something that is directly relevant to others.

If you don’t have any important progress, updates or blockers about the epic or user story, you can say “no updates today,” and the role of the speaker will move on to the next person in line.

I’ll be the first one to admit that there are fundamental obstacles with this method:

  1. It encourages introverts (which a large number of software people are) to say that they do not have a relevant update when they do.
  2. It leaves the decision power of what is relevant and what is not to each team member. Something might be relevant even though the speaker doesn’t think that it is.

Making Stand-ups Less Frequent

Another option to reduce time spent at stand-ups is not to have them every day. Skipping stand-ups break the cardinal sins of a scrum but hear me out before you shun the idea.

I have been at many scrum stand-ups at different companies in which I feel like I am living out the movie Groundhog Day. Each day’s status seems like the day before.

It’s good to have daily communication with your team, but is it effective if team members are working on slow moving projects in which their status doesn’t change much on a day to day basis?

In the past, some of my teams have moved to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, cutting out the stand-up on Tuesday and Thursday. Having only three stand-ups was successful in most situations where projects were slower, and things weren’t actively changing.

If you think about cutting out two 15 minute stand-ups a week, that’s 30 minutes a week. Spread over a year that could save more than three workdays of time spent in stand-up meetings. Now imagine the time cutting those two stand-ups out spread across your whole team.

Time of Day

Another way to experiment with your stand-up meeting is to change the day it occurs. While teams often conduct a stand-up first thing in the morning, some teams change that to midday or end of day activity. When these meetings occur will be dependent on company culture and what fits into the overall scheduling.

This flexibility of changing the time like this may only be a luxury for remote team members. While on the other hand, for some people (like those working with a team overseas) having a stand-up at 7 pm isn’t a choice of efficiency, it’s one of necessity due to the nature of their job.

While this may sound trivial, scheduling a stand-up when people take their lunch break or go home right after, can shock teams into efficiency. No one wants to be that that person who causes the stand-up to run into someone’s lunch hour or cause someone to leave the office late.

Digital Stand-ups

Another solution to making stand-ups more efficient is the use of digital software.

A lot of people I have spoken with hate this idea. They think that the whole purpose of stand-ups is a face to face interaction to bring people together and remove blockers. I get that.

But not everyone has the privilege of physically being able to get together for a stand-up meeting. In fact, in this day and age, it’s quite common for stand-ups to be conducted remotely with team members. A remote stand-up with a colleague in a different time zone can be difficult for both parties—one has to work late, and one has to work very early.

Since this problem has arisen in agile, several products have emerged to remedy it. My product, Allisian has been developed to solve this exact problem. It allows you to have stand-ups asynchronously, at a time that works for everyone’s schedule.

Other products, such as Geekbot for Slack and StandUp Bot for HipChat offer direct stand-up status right in your communication client.

What digital stand-up products allow teams to do is communicate their daily statuses and intentions, along with anything blocking them. This communication can be done by team members asynchronously, on their schedules—a huge benefit to distributed teams.

The Conclusion: How to Improve Stand-ups

Encouraging feedback from your team on your process is key to improve stand-up. You can help foster retrospection, allowing for an even deeper understanding of what is or isn’t working well.

In the end, stand-up meetings are about team communication. Scrum meetings are supposed to galvanize that point, ensuring that the team is working cohesively to underline the company’s mission statement. What they are not about is following rules of agile, just so that you can say you did. Agile isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s important to conceptualize that. As long as team members communicate key ideas and locks efficiently, discourse can happen without undermining productivity.

If you are looking for more about this topic, you can check out Age of Product’s article 16 Stand-up Anti-Patterns Threatening Your Transition to Scrum.

About the Author

Jonathan Weber is an entrepreneur and product designer at heart. He has felt the pain first hand of the inefficient stand-up meetings. He writes about agile, product and productivity at Allisian when he isn’t spending time with his family.

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