Agile in Practice: Stand Up Meetings

July 29, 2020 | Peter Cronin

Why should your team have stand up meetings?

Daily stand-up, daily scrum, daily huddle, daily team meeting – many people prefer the term ‘daily stand-up’ as it reinforces the point that it should be brief and to the point. Others prefer ‘daily huddle’ as a reference to a sports team’s strategic huddle.

Whatever your team calls this daily ritual, the daily stand-up meeting is a fundamental part of Agile software development used in Scrum.

Stand-up meetings are a great opportunity to make sure the current sprint is on track to finish what was planned, that people can get any assistance they need, and everyone is aware of the pace of the week.

As with many other daily practices, people can slip into bad habits, and stand-up meetings can become less useful, even eliminating a lot of the benefit and purpose of running sprints.

Common bad habits of stand-up meetings

People lose focus and the meeting time drags out

The key to successful stand-up meetings is staying focused and not letting the meeting evolve into normal conversations that should be taken ‘offline’ and discussed after the meeting. The purpose of a stand-up meeting is risk management. When team members are essentially just talking about the task that they’re doing, what they’ve done over the last day, or what they’re going to do today, that’s not necessarily very useful.

However, it is easy to slip into this bad habit because those are easy things to talk about, it doesn’t require any deviation from a normal day.

The problem? If it’s business as usual and ticking along fine and that’s all the team is talking about during the stand-up, it gets boring and the meeting drags out. If that’s the case, team members start to lose focus and tune out, with a sense of, “I’ll just wait for my turn to talk,” rather than being engaged in a team discussion to ensure the success of the sprint.

False progress reports – “It’s all under control”

Management scrutiny occurs when there is low visibility or certainty that a task is proceeding according to plan. The daily stand-up is an easy way to ‘report’ something, or anything, so that management doesn’t come and look too closely, or keep asking about the progress of a task. It might be that the team member isn’t trying to potentially obscure or direct managers away from the task they should be having a look at, but they would rather they could get some uninterrupted time to work on it.

When questioned about why the task is taking a bit longer it may seem easier to that person to say, “Oh, yeah, no, but it’s all under the control.” The problem? When a team member says that three or four days in a row, and gets away with it, obstacles that are causing the task to take longer than usual go unaddressed. The team ends up with these issues at the end of the sprint where work they thought was under control has to get done, or it just rolls over into next week. These kinds of behaviours blur the visibility of the risk status of the sprint. The consequent ripple effects eliminate a lot of the benefits and sometimes even the whole purpose of a sprint.

Replace the bad habits with good habits

The best way to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. Reinforcing good habits at the daily stand-up will protect the outcome of the sprint, ensure obstacles are promptly addressed, and team members stay engaged in the discussion.

Focus on ‘what is at risk’ and what we can do about it

Daily stand-ups are a risk discussion. It’s about watching the tasks that are ageing: are they on track for completion, does everybody feel they have what they need, whatever it is? If one person is overloaded, is there anything people in the rest of the team can help accelerate them temporarily to keep a smooth flow of work going? Is this task taking longer than it should? Can I get any assistance with that? The goal of having a stand-up is that it is a team activity, and everybody participates and benefits from it.

Focus on the upcoming handovers between tasks that are at risk

Where a task is in a chain of tasks, with future tasks dependent on the completion of a task which is starting to take a bit longer than expected, it’s important to start talking about those task handovers. When will this task be ready to hand over to the next person? If it’s going to be ready by midday for the next person to start, then that person can be aware of what is happening and plan accordingly. If one task is dragging the chain for the whole sprint, the focus should be on making sure the next resource is ready to start work on it as soon as it is handed over to them. Resources can choose how to prioritise their workload and ensure the tasks in the critical chain are completed as quickly as possible to minimise risk.

Act early before things go wrong

With the focus on stand-ups being what is at risk, team leaders and team members can better anticipate what might go wrong. This visibility of risk allows people to act early; take appropriate actions now, rather than wait for it to go wrong.

For example, in response to ‘what is at risk?’ a resource says, “I’ve started on this task, and actually, this is ridiculous, there’s no way we can actually do this in the sprint.”

Rather than waiting until the end of the sprint to rearrange the plan, actions can be taken now to chunk the task differently or add more resources, so the team is proactive rather than reactive.

In every team, the way that the team functions and the purpose of the team are different – whether they’re doing bug fixes, features, or services to other companies, where they’re developing software for them. Essentially you want to find for your team – what are the critical questions you can ask before things go wrong? And then keep the focus on those questions at each stand-up to protect the goal and purpose of not only stand-up meetings, but also the entire sprint.