Agile management has become increasingly popular in the tech world, in part because it addresses some of the special challenges associated with software development, such as rapid release cycles and clear open discussion of complex topics with steep learning curves. Among the most popular agile approaches is a technique called Scrum, which outlines a set of rituals, roles, and artefacts to help a team adopt an agile approach, and track its effectiveness.
One of the rituals that keeps Scrum teams working effectively is the daily standup. A daily standup gives everybody in the team the opportunity to share with the rest of the team, and anyone who cares to listen: what they’ve been working on, what they’re planning to do next, and what ‘blockers’ (or outside obstacles) they may have encountered. Handled consistently, a daily standup doesn’t get in the way of productivity, and increases the transparency of the project, so everybody knows what everybody else is doing.
But it’s possible for the daily Scrum standup to become a problem. Often it can be because the team decides to break or bend some of the rules of Scrum, but just as often it can be because the team is adhering to strict practices when it comes to Scrum, but not respecting the principles behind Scrum.
A good Scrum Master should be able to pay attention to the way the team is responding to the daily standup, and watch for signals that it may be getting in the way of productivity.
How Daily Standups Work
By its nature, Scrum tries to be flexible, and not to dictate how any particular team implements the techniques. The point of the daily standup is to give everybody on the team the opportunity to share any information the rest of the team will need to know in order to do their work that day. A daily standup is open to anybody who cares to be present, but the target audience is the team itself. The daily standup is not “just another meeting” to be hijacked by ordinary business needs, and its primary purpose should not be to provide status reports for people outside the team.
To keep the daily standup focused and effective, there’s a set of common practices that have become standard. It’s up to the Scrum Master to make sure that all of these practices are followed properly, and that everybody on the team gets the respect and attention they deserve while they are speaking.
At minimum, a daily standup adheres to these practices:
- Time-boxed to 15 minutes
- Everyone stands
- Anyone can attend
- Only team members speak
- Everyone answers three basic questions
- Deeper discussions are deferred
Most teams understand this list after just a couple of standups, and can follow the practice easily with a little guidance from an attentive Scrum Master. But after a while, even the most diligent team may find itself tempted to bend a few of the rules. And even on teams that follow all of the rules, sometimes there are behaviors that can violate the principles of agile practice while still adhering to the letter of the law according to the definition of Scrum.
Extending Time Limits
One of the easiest rules to break is the 15-minute time limit. Engineers may find themselves tempted to discuss solutions to problems their coworkers raise, and the instinct to blurt out a suggestion can easily lead to a back-and-forth discussion that raises other issues and extends the time. The standup may also become an opportunity for managers or external parties to make broader organizational announcements beyond what is relevant for the day’s work. These often require further discussion.
While it’s fair to raise issues that relate to the daily work at a Scrum standup, the limited time set aside for this practical ritual is intentional. The daily standup shouldn’t be used to replace regular communications channels in a company. Ideally, an alert Scrum Master will be paying attention to the clock and making sure everyone is aware of the time limit as it approaches.
One recommended practice is to ask everyone to agree to extend the meeting when the time runs out, but the discussion is still happening. The Scrum Master needs to make sure that everyone remembers and respects the 15 minute time limit, and encourage anyone present to defer unrelated announcements and discussions. If the daily standups consistently run too long, they’ll inevitably begin interfering with the rhythm of the day, and the confidence of the team in their Scrum process.
Too Much Input From Outside
It’s important that the daily standup be open for anybody in the company to attend and observe. Part of the value of Scrum is the transparency that it offers. Everything the team is working on should be posted up on the Scrum board for anybody to see, and anyone who is interested should be able to listen in at the daily standup and find out how things are going. But it’s easy to forget that colleagues, coworkers, and friends who are listening to the team updates shouldn’t interfere with the Scrum process. This is especially true when the people observing the standup are in authority positions, or come from organizations that don’t recognize and observe Scrum practices.
Getting acceptance for Scrum across the entire organization means making sure that people outside of the team understand the value that the practices have for the Engineering group. That can require external evangelizing and education. A Scrum Master alone cannot be expected to communicate the value of proper Scrum to everyone outside the team who may be interested. It’s the responsibility of management to step in and remind people who aren’t in the engineering department that they need to respect the practices without interfering. A Scrum Master can make this point during the meeting, and try to keep things focused, but often that needs to be backed up by further internal communications from more senior people after the standup.
The team can easily bounce back if this kind of interference happens only once or twice, but if it starts becoming a regular practice, the team may begin to lose faith in the company’s respect for the process.
Loose Speaking Standards
Every day, everybody on the team needs to answer three questions: what did I do yesterday, what am I doing today, and is anything blocking me. The formula is very simple, but it’s actually incredibly easy for an engineer to lose track of those three questions while thinking about the actual work he’s been deeply involved in. People may get caught up in talking about what they plan to do today, and ignore what they did yesterday, or they may focus on the blockers they have. It’s also easy for the team members to assume that other team members already know what they’re working on because they’ve been discussing it during the day, and that can lead to loose adherence to the actual questions.
The diligence of the Scrum Master often comes down to repeating those three simple questions at the beginning of every daily standup. Sometimes it’s even necessary to repeat them before each person gives an update, just to remind everybody that there is a pattern that they need to follow. It can sound pedantic, especially with a mature team that’s been following Scrum for a while, but the value to the team of adhering to a fixed script helps make sure that each daily standup takes only as long as it needs to, and that all the critical information is communicated.
Choosing a Bad Standup Time
Finding the right time of the day for a daily Scrum standup can be a tricky thing for some teams. Management may be keen to start the Scrum early in the morning to encourage everybody to get to the office on time, or late in the day to prevent people from leaving early. But if management is more concerned about people in their seats than about productivity on the scrum board, that may reflect a deeper issue that needs to be addressed separately.
Treating the daily standup as a way to enforce office policies can lead to poor standup attendance, and even generate resentment of the Scrum process. Setting the standup too early or too late also may prevent people from other departments from attending the standup, reducing transparency.
On the other hand, scheduling daily standups in the middle of the morning or the afternoon just because everyone is present can break otherwise uninterrupted stretches of time when real work can take place. Engineering performs best when people can count on working without distractions for solid chunks of time. Switching context for the sake of a 15-minute standup can break momentum and reduce the efficiency of the team.
One of the best suggestions I’ve heard is to have the Scrum standup 15 minutes before lunch time. Get the team to agree to a time when everybody wants to break for lunch, and plan the standup to start 15 minutes before that time. Lunch typically happens in the middle of the work day, so everybody will be present, but because lunch is already an interruption to the workflow, scheduling a meeting right before that time won’t introduce a new distraction that can break people’s concentration. Also, when lunch follows the daily standup, there’s less of a tendency to let it run long.
Cutting Off Useful Communication
One of the principles of agile methodologies is to favor communication over documentation. Sometimes, that means that the daily standup can be used to share more information than suggested by the three basic questions everybody must answer. When the team needs to be able to discuss time-critical issues that affect the whole team, the structure of the daily standup can sometimes provide the only opportunity in a busy workplace for people to come together. While it’s necessary to observe the time-boxing to respect everybody’s participation, it’s just as important to pay attention to the dynamics of the team, and allow necessary communication to flow freely.
Since there will be times when the daily Scrum standup needs to extend beyond 15 minutes, a good Scrum Master should have a process to handle that, and pay attention to how often it happens. Be ready to recommend meetings outside of the daily standup if the standups seem to frequently run long. Allowing brief spontaneous discussions to take place, and making sure that everybody is in agreement with extending the standup when necessary, can actually help improve the dynamics of the group, and maintain a sense of community.
Finding the proper balance for daily Scrum practices requires adhering to the same agile approach that underlies everything else in Scrum. It’s always a matter of trying things, paying attention to the results, and then adjusting.
I've worked as a Web Engineer, Writer, Communications Manager, and Marketing Director at companies such as Apple, Salon.com, StumbleUpon, and Moovweb. My research into the Social Science of Telecommunications at UC Berkeley, and while earning MBA in Organizational Behavior, showed me that the human instinct to network is vital enough to thrive in any medium that allows one person to connect to another.
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