Stand-ups: the Scrum way is the wrong way

The Daily Stand-up, or Daily Scrum, is a short meeting that almost always takes place in the first half of the morning, usually 10-30 minutes long (the Scrum Guide dictates a quarter-hour).

I like them. They are really important. But any good idea can be messed up by poor implementation, so in this article I will talk about how Scrum says you should do Stand-ups, and some improved variants on that.

First, the name of the meeting. Scrum certainly didn’t invent the idea of a quick daily catch-up meeting, so the term “Daily Scrum” is somewhat presumptuous. The most common alternative name, “Daily Stand-up” has a different problem; it derives from the idea that attendees should be made deliberately uncomfortable by enforcing a standing posture in order to keep the meeting short.

dilbert-standups

Now of course all meetings should be kept as short as reasonably possible while still covering the necessary. But making people stand up is a terrible way to drive this; discomfort is just as likely to make it harder to concentrate or encourage people to arrive late or not at all. In general, the chairing and facilitation skills needed to run good sit-down meetings are more than sufficient for this meeting – adding discomfort doesn’t improve anything. Personally I have no objection to people standing up if they all want to, but it shouldn’t be mandatory and the meeting shouldn’t really be named thus. The optimal name for this meeting is perhaps “Daily Catch-up”, but most companies seem to call it a Stand-up, and to avoid confusion so shall I.

stand-up

Stand-ups almost always happen around the board that represents the team’s work, whether this is in software or physical (usually post-its on a whiteboard). Interestingly, such boards are not mentioned at all in the Scrum Guide, an astonishing fact which I will discuss elsewhere. So although these boards are literally not any formal part of Scrum, they are a critically important element of managing complex teamwork, and it is entirely correct that they are the focus of the Stand-up. Indeed I see the principal function of the Stand-up as being to ensure that The Team Board is correct, and that the whole team agrees it is correct, at least once per day, and tons of other Good Stuff flows from that.

Now there are two basic ways to structure a discussion about finding the optimal fit between a bunch of people (the attending team) and a bunch of work (represented on the board). These are:

  1. people-focussed
  2. work-focussed

The Scrum Stand-up format advocates the first, and this is the wrong choice. What exactly does Scrum tell you to do? You should go round the team, person by person, and each answers the Magic 3 Questions:

Q1: what did I do yesterday?
Q2: what will I do today?
Q3: do I see any impediments?

By the time everyone’s spoken, this format guarantees that you know what everyone is planning to do – there can be no slacking! But it does not of course guarantee that everyone is working on the right stuff; it is entirely possibly in principle and in practice for everyone in a team to have said what they’ll be busy on, but for nobody at all to be working on the Most Important Thing(s). What a waste of a meeting if so. Now a perfect alignment of individual work proposals to team priorities may have come out of the ensuing conversations – I sure hope it did, anyway – but the Scrum format does not focus on that desirable outcome.

The alternative is to make The Team Board the focus of the meeting, and fit people to work in priority order. A well-set up board makes priority order obvious, so you start with the single highest prio piece of work, and ask who’s working on it, to do what exactly, and whether they need any help. A super-short summary of what is agreed gets noted down (when I run these meetings I do this summary real-time within the board software, with everyone watching and double-checking, and it takes an acceptably trivial amount of time to do so).

You then move on to the second-most important bit of work. Then the third. And so on, till everyone has their day’s work identified to the team’s satisfaction. You might keep going a little bit after that to look at what coming up next, or you might end the meeting at that point. Now everyone knows what they’re doing today, everyone is working in priority order, and The Team Board Tells The Complete Truth – Job Done, successful meeting over.

time-out-gesture

This is supposed to be a short meeting, so you have to keep things flowing. When a discussion breaks out in a Stand-up, the team will often let it run for a short time (30 or 60 seconds) to see if it comes to a swift resolution. If not, someone in the team should signal “time out” using the international gesture above (and everyone in the team should be empowered to do this, not just the person running the meeting), and then it’s someone’s job (usually the person running the meeting) to note down who needs to discuss exactly what at a later point in time (often, immediately after the Stand-up). Thus the Action Points / Minutes of a Stand-up are, unlike other meetings, a combination of a) an updated Board and b) a series of discussions whose need has been identified during the Stand-up.

This alternative format avoids forcing people to try to remember what they did yesterday (most people can’t remember what they were doing 10 minutes ago, it doesn’t mean they’re bad colleagues). It asks the sensible question of “do you need any help?”, not some ridiculous question about “impediments”, and most importantly you know for sure and certain that everyone is working on the most important thing they can do. This is guaranteed by the structure of the meeting, and is far, far, far more important to business outcomes than structuring your meeting to ensure nobody is being lazy.

So the golden rules of successful Stand-ups turn out to be:

  • walk the The Team Board in priority order (meaning of course that you have to know how to set up a board)
  • fit people to the work, not vice versa
  • update the board in real time without destroying the flow of the meeting (perfectly possible)
  • keep things flowing with the time-out gesture
  • stop when everyone’s got the day’s work agreed, possibly plus a little look into tomorrow

You can judge the health of a team pretty quickly by the state of their board and their Stand-ups; getting both right is critical. Judging a board is an art in itself, which I will write about separately. But pretty much anyone can observe and judge a meeting; look for the quality of communication and decisions, body language, efficient use of time, what is written down and how, and whether the objectives of the meeting are met quickly and efficiently.

I would encourage anyone interested in a team and/or its deliverables to attend Stand-up(s). Watching people programme or test is often pretty dull (it’s the same as ‘watching people type’), so the Stand-up is the closest you can get to Walking The Line in a factory setting, and your quickest route to assessing the beating heart of a team. Try it – you may well be surprised by what you find, for good or for bad 🙂

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s