What did you do yesterday?
What do you plan to do today?
What's standing in your way?
These simple questions, often held up as the cornerstone of an effective daily standup, have revealed problems, unearthed dependencies, and saved many a project from failure.
But is a good Agile daily meeting nothing more than a rote recitation of each team members' answers to the Big Three Questions?
If you've ever been to a really good daily standup you know there's more to it than that.
Simply plodding through the three questions day in and day out will quickly suck the effectiveness out of standup if you aren't actively working to keep it fresh. So here I'll be walking you through two different ways to handle your standup meeting, one that tends to be more common with Scrum teams and one that's more often found in teams using Kanban.
It's a simple way to distinguish between the two approaches, but it doesn't mean that you're stuck using the one that "usually" comes with your chosen methodology.
Experiment with alternatives so that your daily standup, like all aspects of your Agile approach, is continuously improving and serving the team.
Why We Do Daily Standup
Before we dive into logistics, let's take a moment to remember why standup is a thing in the first place. It's not a micro-management tool that allows managers to keep daily tabs on every team member. It's also not a shaming ceremony that puts pressure on people to keep up or get out.
Instead, daily standup is the heartbeat of the team.
It's the primary means of communication among team members as they work together to solve complicated problems and produce outstanding work.
I particularly like how Jason Yip, an Agile coach over at Spotify, puts it:Stand-ups are a mechanism to regularly synchronise so that teams...
- Share understanding of goals. Even if we thought we understood each other at the start (which we probably didn’t), our understanding drifts, as does the context within which we’re operating. A “team” where each team member is working toward different goals tends to be ineffective.
- Coordinate efforts. If the work doesn’t need to be coordinated, you don’t need a team. Conversely, if you have a team, I assume the work requires coordination. Poor coordination amongst team members tends to lead to poor outcomes.
- Share problems and improvements. One of the primary benefits of a team versus working alone, is that team members can help each other when someone encounters a problem or discovers a better way of doing something. A “team” where team members are not comfortable sharing problems and/or do not help each other tends to be ineffective.
- Identify as a team. It is very difficult to psychologically identify with a group if you don’t regularly engage with the group. You will not develop a strong sense of relatedness even if you believe them to be capable and pursuing the same goals.
Put that way, it's easy to see why Agile marketing teams need to standup together every single day.
Things All Good Daily Standups Share
Maybe you have a beautiful white board, or maybe everyone dials in to a shared video line. Maybe you start the day with standup, or maybe it marks the end of the day.
Whatever the logistics might be, good standups all have several things in common:
- All team members attend: Whether virtually or in person, a good standup gets all the right people together.
- External stakeholders welcome: Standup is the perfect time for people outside the team to get quick insight into how the work is going. This eliminates the need for status meetings and improves transparency, both great things.
- We all standup: Few teams progress to the point of not needing to actually stand up during stand up. Keep everyone focused and the meeting short by having all attendees on their feet.
- No devices (except for remote attendees): No messing about on the phone or checking email during standup. Make this a rule, and don't allow exceptions. It's only fifteen minutes, after all.
- Fifteen minutes or less: Good standups pack a lot into a short time, thanks to their 15-minute timebox. Set a timer if you have trouble sticking to this limit at first, because after 15 minutes it becomes increasingly hard for teams to stay focused (and you're wasting a lot more of the team's time).
- Same place and time each day: It can be first thing in the morning or right before the team disbands for the day, but a good standup is consistent in both its time and location. It's best if it happens where the team works, too.
- Clear start and end: Signal the start of standup with a catchy tune, and let everyone know it's over with a simple "And we're done" or something similar. Clear boundaries help maintain focus.
Daily Standup Format #1: Three Questions
This first daily standup format is the most common, particularly in the world of Scrum. It involves each member of the team sharing their recent progress and upcoming plans with their teammates. To streamline the process, the early originators of Scrum came up with three questions:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What do you plan to do today?
- What impediments are keeping you from moving forward?
It got its name -- daily standup -- because team members stood up to keep themselves focused and active (and to help keep the meeting short).
Even with standing, you can imagine that listening to your entire team answer these same three questions every morning for months (or years) could become supremely tedious if that's all that happened. But the Three Questions aren't supposed to just be individual reports.
The Three Questions are supposed to generate cooperation, collaboration, and constant motion towards a shared goal.
Since every team member sounds off in this standup format, it limits the number of team members you can have in the meeting and still keep it under fifteen minutes. Even if they're the world's fastest talkers, you couldn't get all three questions answered by sixteen different people in fifteen minutes or less. You certainly couldn't get all that information AND have time for the team to coordinate their efforts.
Agile Marketing Issues
Agile marketing teams in particular can struggle with the Three Questions if the team is not really cross-functional, because it may be difficult for team members to offer insight or help to their colleagues.
For instance, if I'm a content marketer with no expertise in creating landing pages or doing conversion rate optimization, I can't jump in and lend a hand when the CRO team is struggling to get a project finished. I really only care about their Three Questions as they relate to my own tasks, which probably doesn't make me a very attentive standup participant.
Another potential issue with Agile marketing standups is that all relevant parties may not be in the room.
If you use external freelancers or agencies you're unlikely to have them at each and every daily standup, which introduces risks that their parts of the work may stall out and the team won't know about it soon enough.
If you can, get an agency representative at standup at least three times a week to update the team on work the agency is handling that impacts the team's upcoming plans.
Likewise, if you can get freelancers to attend virtually a few times per week you'll mitigate some of the risk associated with pushing work outside the Agile marketing team.
Daily Standup Format #2: Walk the Board
If your team is too big for the Three Questions, you want to focus on what's on the board, or you're just looking for a way to change up the daily meeting, walking the board is a good alternative.
The idea here is for a facilitator to start at the Done end of a board and move towards the Backlog end, talking about new and noteworthy things that the cards show. This works for digital boards as well as physical ones, though with digital boards the "walk" may happen virtually unless you can project it onto a large screen.
In a Walk the Board standup the focus is off the people doing the work and on the work itself.
Not every team member needs to speak during a Walk the Board standup, but any and all team members are welcome to contribute if they have relevant information. If you have shy team members who are hesitant to proactively engage in this kind of standup, the facilitator will need to ensure their input is included.
It may also be useful to have different team members facilitate standup from week to week so there is less tendency for one person to become the leader to whom everyone else feels they must report. If you have access to an Agile coach, they can be an ideal standup facilitator.
Eventually a Walk the Board standup can evolve out of needing a facilitator at all. Team members will start with the highest priority items closest to the end of the process and work their way backwards, with each person offering input on the tasks they're working on.
Agile Marketing Issues
Marketing teams are often working on A LOT of different things at the same time. Talking about each and every one can be even more exhausting than having thirty people answer the traditional Three Questions.
Instead, keep the focus on what has changed since the last standup and what is noticeably unchanged:
- What work got done?
- What new things were started?
- Which tasks moved to a new state in the workflow?
- What work hasn't moved in several days?
This will keep you from needing to talk about everything everyday.
External contributors not being present can be a problem for this style of standup too, so again, try to get freelancers and/or agency representatives to join in daily standups whenever possible.
3 Common Standup Problems and Solutions
Regardless of which type of standup you choose, you may find yourself running into one more of these issues. If it happens, don't stress too much. Take it as an opportunity to bring the team together around a solution, like the ones collected below.
Problem: Daily Standup Takes Too Long
If you're spending 45 minutes every single day in standup, you're wasting a HUGE amount of the team's time. Keep the timebox firm, or the team will come to dread never ending standups and they won't be effective.
Lengthy meetings tend to happen because team members want to go into too much detail or problem solve on the spot. Both of these tendencies can be counteracted with a simple team policy.
Solution: Two Hands Rule
I love love love this elegant solution from Benjamin Mitchell. He suggests that anyone who thinks a conversation is starting to get too detailed or too long for a standup meeting should raise their hand. As soon as a second person raises their hand the people having the conversation need to stop and continue their discussion after standup is over.
The two hands rule "makes it easy for people to share their view on the effectiveness of the conversation in a way that reduces the risk of causing offence," Benjamin says. But beware, the technique can "feel direct or confrontational, especially when people first experience it." Be sure to talk about it in your retrospective after you introduce it to make sure everyone on the team is comfortable with its place at standup.
Problem: Team Members Reporting to Facilitator
Daily standup is for the team, not for their manager or leader. But many team members feel the need to report their progress to someone in a position of authority, particular when they (or the company culture) are new to Agile.
Having the right facilitator is crucial here. You don't want someone who enjoys lording this position of power over their team.
Instead, they should actively work to ensure that everyone is focused on the team, not on giving a status update to someone who seems to be in charge.
Solution: Break Eye Contact
In both the Three Questions and Walk the Board formats, the facilitator can encourage team members to share their information more broadly by deliberately breaking eye contact if someone is looking only at them.
The facilitator can also move around the standup space so the current speaker can't see them, giving them no choice but to address the team.
Problem: Standup Isn't Helping Collaboration
If you don't have any discussion happening after standup is over, you probably have a collaboration issue. Small groups should form to solve problems and share ideas that were too detailed or specific to cover during standup.
To push the team away from stagnant reporting and into a more problem-solving mindset, try renaming your standup to a daily huddle.
Solution: Start Thinking of Standup Like a Huddle
I love the way Jeff Sutherland describes an ideal daily standup as working like a football huddle (that's American football, by the way):
A wide receiver might say, “I’m having a problem with that defensive lineman,” to which an offensive blocker might respond, “I’ll take care of that. I’ll open that line.” Or the quarterback might say, “Our running game is hitting a wall; let’s surprise them with a pass to the left.” The idea is for the team to quickly confer on how to move toward victory—i.e., complete the Sprint. Passivity is not only lazy, it actively hurts the rest of the team’s performance. Once spotted, it needs to be eliminated immediately.
Simply put, the team should leave with a clear idea of what they're going to do as a unit RIGHT NOW to get closer to their goal.
What Does Daily Standup Do For You?
What about you -- how are you using daily standup on your teams? Are there any roadblocks we didn't cover here that you'd like help with? Give us a shout in the comments.