New to agile? Tips for better daily stand-ups

As an agile coach I have attended a lot of daily stand-up meetings.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a meeting that went something like this:

Scrum Master: OK everyone, it is time for our status report.  Let’s start with Joe.
Joe (delivered in a boring monotone voice): Yesterday I did A.  Today I will do B.  Nothing blocking me.
Scrum Master: OK, now Bill.
Bill (delivered in a boring monotone voice): Yesterday I did C.  Today I will do D.  Nothing blocking me.
Scrum Master: OK, now Jane.
Jane (delivered in a boring monotone voice): Yesterday I did E.  Today I will do F.  Nothing blocking me.
(continue in this pattern until all have given their answers)
Scrum Master: Thanks everyone.  Great status meeting.  See you all tomorrow at the same time!

Can 15 minutes possibly be any more boring and useless (please don’t answer that because I REALLY don’t want to know there is a worse fate than being in this type of daily stand-up meeting!).  So, what can you do to change things?

For starters, the daily stand-up meeting IS NOT A STATUS MEETING!!!  We don’t need a status meeting.  Status is what we get from our task board and burndown chart.  Why have a meeting to cover what we can just look at either on the wall or in whatever tool we use for our project?

When I tell teams it is not a status meeting I inevitably hear “If it isn’t a status meeting, then what is it?  It sure seems like a status meeting with the 3 questions we are supposed to answer!”  I even have to grudgingly admit I can understand the confusion.  It is very easy, even for good agile teams, to fall back into the “status-like” method of doing daily stand-up meetings.  But it isn’t a status meeting and there are ways to improve:

  1. If you aren’t already “doing it right”, start!  In other words, for starters, answer the 3 questions and move on.  Don’t allow too much interaction about the answers – that can and should happen outside of the daily stand-up.
  2. Do it “right” and don’t allow outside observers to participate.  Remember the chicken and pig scenario.  Only “pigs” get to participate.  This is their time, if someone wants to say something to the team they can do it at another time.
  3. Use a “talking stick” or some other token which has to be in someone’s possession for them to speak.  This stops people from talking over one another and also stops side discussions.
  4. To make the meeting less “status-like” the project manager/scrum master should be a bystander!  They can start the meeting by calling on someone to go first, but then they should back off and stay in the background.  Each person who speaks picks the next person who will speak.  An important note here – it is not necessary for the Scrum Master to be at the daily stand-up!  The team should still go forward, even without the Scrum Master.
  5. Don’t make the meeting about moving index cards, sticky notes, online tasks or anything else similar to these things.  You can update the task board outside the meeting.  The meeting is about exchanging information not the ceremony of updating status.
  6. As each person answers the question “What did I do since we met last?” everyone should be thinking to themselves “Is there anything that person could help me with based on what they just completed?”
  7. As each person answers the question “What will I do before we meet again?” everyone should be thinking to themselves “Is there anything I know which could help that person with their new item?”
  8. Start the meeting on time and invoke some sort of penalty for late arrivals – the latest getting the worst penalty.  Keep it fun, but it it needs to be meaningful at the same time.  This is about respect of other people.  If we don’t respect the people we work with enough to show up on time for this meeting then we have a big problem that agile may not be able to solve!
  9. Encourage collaboration by having another question after everyone has spoken – Who needs to talk to someone else for help or to give help?  Then do it!  This encourages people to be thinking thoughts like #6 and #7 above.
  10. If the daily stand-up is being done over the phone be sure to have everyone say their name clearly and loudly enough for everyone to understand it.  I’ve seen people on new teams never know who was talking and then not be able to help someone because they didn’t know who to help!
  11. DO NOT TRY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS!!!  This is a meeting to expose problems, not solve them.  Not everyone has to be involved in solving every problem, and in fact that will cause more disruption than benefit in most cases.
  12. Stick to 15 minutes or less for the meeting.  If the team is too large to have it done in 15 minutes then analyze why the team is so large and whether it should be split in some fashion.  Remember, because of the number of communication channels involved, the ideal team size is 7 +/- 2.  I usually say that is ideal, but you can go larger if you are willing to put up with the pain.  If it is larger than 12 you really need to look at why.
  13. If the meeting is in person, then actually stand during the meeting.  It is a proven fact meetings will take less time when everyone is standing rather than sitting.
  14. If managers will be participating (I only have them participate as pigs if they are actually doing work!) then consider having them go last.  Sometimes a manager can set the wrong tone for a meeting just by the words they use and how they say them.  When they go last this issue is avoided.  It also helps keep the meeting shorter 🙂
  15. In order to focus on completion and success, consider changing the questions to “What did I COMPLETE since we last met?” and “What will I COMPLETE before we meet again?”  This tends to help with focus as well as making people painfully aware tasks should be able to be completed in less than one day.

I’m going to stop at 15 items this time.  I have several more, but I’ll save them for a future post.

Thank you for reading this.  If you have suggestions, please leave a comment.  I’d love to expand the list!  Until next time I’m going to be Making Agile a Reality™ by helping teams convert boring daily stand-up meetings into vibrant information sharing and collaboration meetings!

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