Make the Most of Stand-ups

“Hey, shouldn’t we have a stand-up?”
“Well, you know what I’m doing right now, don’t you?”
“Wait a second, this is a very complex bit. Can we do it in half an hour?”
“Where’s Alice?” “She’s in another meeting.”
“And Bob?” “He’s not in yet. It’s only ten o’clock!”

A couple of months before we were going to show the first TomTom GO device to the world, we were still working hard to finish the software. We weren’t doing Scrum yet in those days–we just did some sort of “Project Management by Common Sense”.

We created a bi-weekly meeting between the team leads of the several teams that were working on the project, to report about progress and align were necessary. But when the deadline came nearer, it became weekly meeting, then every few days, and in the end it was a daily meeting.

What we were doing was part of crisis management: the pressure was high, the stakes were high, so we made sure we were not making mistakes by communicating clearly and frequently. But if that is a good idea in a crisis, wouldn’t it be always a good idea?

That’s where the daily stand-up comes in. It is perhaps the most visible part of Scrum. Every day the team gathers around the Scrum board, and has a short meeting standing up. Some call it the daily Scrum.

For a team to work together, each member must know what each other member is doing. And not just have a general idea what they are doing, but know it fairly precisely. That way, you can help each other, you don’t do double work, and you don’t do work that isn’t actually necessary.

A stand-up will help you achieve that; at least that’s the textbook theory. But are your stand-ups effective? Do you feel it is working for you?

Guard Your Time

A fairly common sight: six people standing in front of a Scrum board, waiting for the seventh to arrive. After five minutes, the team is complete and the stand-up can start. But ten minutes later, the Product Owner leaves…

Some people complain that Scrum has too many meetings. Especially the stand-up meeting, which is held every day, is a thorn in their flesh. But it only becomes that when the stand-up meeting is not effective.

An important aspect of effective meetings is to guard the time, both at the start of the meeting and at the end. That means you have to pay attention all the way through.

Starting late makes a lot of people wait, that’s one thing. But running late is also not effective.

Start on Time

If you have a very short meeting, it must start on time. If you don’t, you can never end on time. But shouldn’t you wait until everybody is there before you start the meeting? Although that seems obvious, you now run into a problem: people will leave early because the meeting is running late. Usually, people leaving early cause more disruption than people arriving late. When you’re leaving early, you often have a good reason: another meeting, an appointment, something to prepare or something to finish. But arriving late is your fault, so you will try to sneak in and not draw too much attention.

There is another reason to always start on time: people will get used to meetings starting late, and will not bother to come on time if that means they will have to wait. But luckily, people will also get used to meetings starting sharply on time. Starting on time is a habit that will reinforce itself; after some time nobody will dare to come late anymore.

So start on time–always. Even if only half the group is there, just get it going; let late-comers keep their quiet and not interrupt the meeting. Fill them in later, if they missed something important, and use the opportunity to ask them to be in time next time. In a few days you will all be used to starting on time.

Don’t Run Late

Sometimes stand-up meetings take longer than fifteen minutes. It’s hard to concentrate that long; people start to look around or out of the window; some people even sit down. The subject of the meeting becomes fuzzy; not all members of the team participate. It has become an open-ended meeting that does not result in action items or information exchange.

Don’t let that happen. A good stand-up meeting never runs late. It doesn’t have to. The key is to realize what a stand-up is all about: to make the whole team aware of what everyone in the team is doing. Not less, because this certainly is a lot to talk about, but not more either. So the Scrum Master should end the meeting after fifteen minutes, no matter what. It may seem strange at first, if you’re not finished yet, but next time everybody will try harder to keep it short. As the sprint progresses, stand-up meetings can become shorter and shorter.

Stay on Topic

“… Now what did I do yesterday? …”
“… I’ve just gotten in and haven’t had time to work out what I will be doing today…”
“… But I really think we should use the Double-checked Locking design pattern in that Singleton, because…”

If your meeting is only fifteen minutes long, you have to restrict yourselves rigorously. That is why a stand-up meeting has a set agenda: everybody should know what is expected from them.

Stick to the Three Questions

The three questions that the team members answer in a stand-up meeting are:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What will I do today?
  3. What are my impediments?

It often happens that the team starts discussing those items instead of just listening to them. Although a small amount of discussion can be useful to clarify what’s done or going to be done, take your longer discussions outside the meeting. A simple “shall we discuss this after the meeting?” will do. Probably not everyone wants to be in that follow-up meeting.

A stand-up meeting is meant to note what’s going on, not to solve it. If necessary, the Scrum Master can keep a list of all things that need to be discussed after the meeting, so that you don’t forget.

Be Prepared

Don’t waste other people’s time trying to work out what you are going to say. Make sure you know your answers to the three questions. Don’t go into unnecessary detail, though. Come up with the answers that the rest of the team are interested in.

If you know what you are going to say it will also be easier to listen to others. You don’t have to search your memory while they are talking.

If it is really hard to remember what you did yesterday, something else is going on. You probably worked on things that were not in the sprint, or you were working on many things in parallel. If this happens a lot, this requires investigating: are your stories too big, or too small? Is there enough work in the sprint? That would be a good topic for the retrospective.

The Ball

Order, Order, No Orders

  • Have an orderly meeting.
  • Speak in logical order.
  • Don’t give orders.

To have orderly stand-up meetings, it might help to use a token, such as a ball (any ball will do, from a small rugby ball to a large beach ball.) The person who holds the ball may speak, everybody else must shut up and listen. Anybody can request the ball, of course, but the person holding the ball will pass it on.

The ball is useful in another way: the team member who is done should pass it on to the next logical person. That can be the one he teamed up with, or the one who works on the same user story. When the team speaks in logical order, it is easier to understand what’s being discussed.

When you use the ball, it will be clear when the meeting is over: when everybody has had the ball. If you want to speak a “parting word” (for example because it’s your birthday and you brought cake) you can always request the ball one more time at the end.

Explain Clearly, Listen Carefully

The stand-up begins, and the Scrum Master sets it off.
He points to Christian. Chris startles, a bit set off by the command.
“… Eeh, yesterday… Yesterday. Ah, I remember!”
Chris goes on telling to the Scrum Master what he did. The Scrum Master waits until he’s done, and then points to Jill: “You!”

Talk to the Team

One particular pitfall that should be avoided in stand-up meetings is the Scrum Master asking the next person to speak. A stand-up isn’t a status report to the Scrum Master, it is a meeting for the team to align their work.

So when you are speaking, you should address the whole team. The Scrum Master doesn’t have to say anything, unless he or she wants to talk about impediments, or demo preparations, or other things that he or she did for the team. The Scrum Master is not the team’s leader or manager, the Scrum Master is the team’s helper.

The ball will help here, too. Using the ball the team will structure the meeting themselves, so the Scrum Master can stay more in the background.

Make the Team Understand

Sometimes a team member stands in front of the board with their back to the rest of the team, moving stickies and telling the board what they did. This can make it hard for the others to understand what he or she is talking about. Again, you need to speak to the team. If team members find it hard to concentrate on the board and the team at the same time, the team could agree not to move or touch any stickies during the stand-up meeting. Or the team makes all their changes to the board at once at the beginning of the stand-up, and only then starts with the three questions.

This forces you to explain a bit better what you mean. Instead of saying “I did this one, and that one, and today I’ll take on this one,” you’ll have to really describe the task. That way you make it as easy as possible for the others to understand you.

Meeting by Phone
Accept this: it is very difficult to have a stand-up meeting with a distributed team. If it is hard to have an effective meeting when you meet in person, it is even harder to do when half of the team is inside a little electronic box on the table. Video conferencing is easier, but still some extra caution is necessary.

Some tips when doing a stand-up meeting by phone:

  • Don’t gather around the phone and talk to it; gather around the board as usual, and have the phone “participate” just like another team member.
  • Talk to the team, not to the phone. The people around you are as important as the people on the other side of the line.
  • Starting on time is vital. Phone conferences can feel very vague and ineffective if people come and go.
  • It is even more important to be prepared when you meet by phone. When you meet in person and somebody struggles to remember, you can see that and make a joke about it. When it happens over the phone, you miss the visual clue and it is much more irritating.

You should try to get the same quick and clear communication going in the phone meeting as in a face-to-face meeting. It should probably even be better, as you have much less chance to talk to each other during the day. And never forget that there is nothing like meeting in person.

Listen, Understand, Remember

What is the hardest part of stand-up meetings? When another team member is speaking, listen to what he or she says. Don’t just hear the words: listen, understand, remember. If you cannot explain after the meeting what everyone is working on, the meeting didn’t meet its purpose.

If you don’t understand what someone is talking about, ask to clarify it. If you still don’t understand, but everybody else seems to understand it, ask for a little extra time outside the meeting for more explanation.

Why is this so important? It’s not just to be polite. To work together as a team, you can’t expect other team members to do their mystery bits while you are doing yours. After all, it will all have to fit together in the end. So to understand the whole picture, to save people from doing double work, and to prevent people from doing useless work, the whole team will have to be involved.

Note that it is hard to listen that well. In the beginning, you will not understand everything. You’ll have to ask for clarification often. But over time, it will become easier, since everyone in the team is learning.

Stand-ups: Getting It Right

“Hey, shouldn’t we have a stand-up? Ah, you’re already there. Who has the ball?”

If the team doesn’t look forward to the stand-up, try to return to the basics.

  • Start on time. Always.
  • End on time, even if it is not finished. Just cut all discussions short.
  • Stick rigorously to the three questions:
    1. What did I do yesterday?
    2. What will I do today?
    3. What are my impediments?
  • Introduce the ball.

Those simple methods can improve your stand-ups. The key to successful stand-up meetings is that you say what you have to say, and listen to what all the others say. That’s not different from any other meeting, but because a stand-up meeting is so short, it has to be executed with the utmost precision.

The daily stand-up meeting is a starting point for team communication, the bare minimum amount of information exchange. Use it to note what’s going on, to decide on more information exchange, and to organize your work. And remember: it is never forbidden to talk more during the day…

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