It’s the same daily standup you’ve been attending for years. You show up at the same time. Enjoy some small talk with your teammates. The facilitator eventually asks how yesterday went with someone’s work.
Updates are given. Details about one’s schedule in the past 24 hours. They end by explaining their plan for the current day. Repeat with the next person on the team until the daily standup is complete.
This format kinda…works.
I mean, it’s fine for some teams and sucks for others. Why do people complain about the daily standup in team retrospectives? Why are some ok with it and others not? After thinking about this for years, I’ve come to the following conclusion:
I don’t care what you did yesterday.
I don’t care that you had meetings about a side project. It doesn’t matter to me how many hours you spent coding. I don’t care if you had a dentist appointment and then made up the time later.
I care about how much progress the team made towards its goals.
In this post, I’m going to explore the problems my teams have had with the “around the room” daily standup format. I’ll explain the format we use that better scales to a growing team. I’ll then explore a different option:
Do daily standups even matter?
If you are not familiar with the daily standup, it’s a daily meeting for a team to talk about the current project. It lasts for 15 minutes and involves each person in the room answering the following:
- What did I complete yesterday that contributed to the team?
- What do I plan to complete today to contribute to the team?
- What impediments do I see that prevent me or the team from achieving its goals?
Detailed discussions should be avoided during the standup. Instead, these topics should be followed up the meeting is done. I emphasize “should” because these discussions are hard to avoid in practice.
For the rest of this post, I will be referring to this format as the “traditional” format.
The problems with the traditional daily standup is a lack of focus and off-topic discussions. When I attend this meeting, here’s what’s going through my head:
- I start thinking about my update to prove I should keep my job
- People zone out when a teammate starts talking about how they worked on something that doesn’t affect me.
- It’s finally my turn to give an update. No one is listening except for the facilitator.
- We go over our time and end when the next team starts lurking outside the room.
I don’t remember most updates I’ve heard in a daily standup. This leads me to ask follow-up questions with my team. My colleagues then have to repeat the information they said in the daily standup. The only difference is that now I’m listening.
I do think the traditional daily standup format works fine for small teams. If updates are done within five minutes, then the extra ten can be used to dig into specific topics. What’s great with a small team is that these extra topics affect everyone.
If everyone can summarize the team’s status, then the traditional format is fine!
It goes awry when the team gets larger than seven or so people. Larger teams bring new problems:
- More people brings more status updates.
- More updates mean more information that others won’t care about.
- The team may be working on multiple projects at once.
- If the team has customers, ad-hoc work will regularly come up.
Simply put, the traditional daily standup format doesn’t scale.
As a leader, it’s your job to pay attention to when people start checking out. When you start seeing this, it’s time to change the format of your daily standup.
I’ve had a lot of success with using the “Walk the Board” format for larger Daily Standups. This format still answers the critical questions of the standup:
- What was completed yesterday?
- What is planned for today?
- What blockers are preventing the team from making progress?
The main change is we stop giving individual updates. Instead, we get updates about every ticket on the board.
This daily standup format works as follows:
- Bring up the board that shows the status of every item the team is working on.
- Starting in the right-most column, get an update for each ticket in the column.
- Be sure to ask: “What’s needed to move this ticket to the next stage of progress?”
- Highlight blockers that people bring up and define what’s needed to unblock work.
- Move to the next column to the left and get updates for each ticket in that column.
- Continue until you get to the left-most column.
This format has worked well for larger teams. Everyone is more focused since we’re talking about specific tickets in a clear order. We’re not bouncing around topics based on where everyone is standing. It’s easier for everyone to prepare their updates since they know what is coming next.
Now, you may be thinking that this format takes a lot of time. It doesn’t!
Since you’re talking about specific tickets, the updates are smaller and quicker. A more focused discussion also prevents side topics from coming up.
If this format is taking too long for your team, it means you’ve exposed new problems.
If there are too many tickets to work through in the daily standup, how can your team commit to less? How you fix this is a topic for another day. In the meantime, I recommend reading the book Agile Project Management with Kanban.
Maybe the problem is the meeting facilitator. They could be letting people talk too long about topics and losing track of time. If this is the case, check out my article on how to facilitate collaborative meetings for guidance.
The above problems may not apply to you; every team is unique. If this is the case, spend time researching the problems your team is facing. Getting a deep understanding of your team’s issues will make it easier to find the right solution.
After attending daily standups for years, I started to notice something special. Standups frequently produced the same experience, but after the meeting…
Everyone on the team talking.
These weren’t just conversations of small talk. Meaningful information was shared. People were deep into problem solving. Trust was being built.
This behavior makes a ton of sense when I thought about it. People were talking with others that shared the same level of context. They weren’t burdened by time pressure or feeling bad for “wasting time” on a topic.
This freedom allowed everyone to talk about the problems they actually cared about.
This made me realize that the real value of a daily standup isn’t the meeting itself. It’s the time that comes after it.
Considering this, let’s stop trying to optimize the daily standup itself. Instead, use it as a catalyst to get our teammates away from their desks. Use the standup to start a conversation, but trust the team to finish it.
After all this, I still think daily standups are a useful tool for teams. The trick is that we need to focus on the actual purpose of the meeting.
Yes, we need to coordinate as a team. Identify blockers, get questions answered, etc.
But we need to figure out how to make the conversation effective for the team as a whole. What works for a team of five may not work for a team of fifteen.
As your team grows, take the opportunity to re-evaluate the format of this meeting. Look to understand the real problems facing it and adjust. I find that walking the board scales well to a larger team, but different formats may better suit your team.
At the end of the day though, the daily standup is not about status updates. It’s about getting smart people together to collaborate and solve hard problems.
We’ve all encountered some form of the daily standup. What formats have worked well in your experience?
If you’re on a remote team, how does your team use the daily standup?