Edele Gormley

Back to Basics Standups

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I’ve been present at literally thousands of stand-up ceremonies, from co-located to completely remote to somewhere in-between. I still remember the very first one I attended. I walked into the room and grabbed a seat, that’s the way every meeting had gone in my experience. A colleague told me to stand-up, I laughed. “Oh we’re literally standing up?" I jumped to my feet and stood in a circle whilst developers tried to remember what they did the previous working day, what they were going to do today and if anything was blocking them.

Being the inquisitive person I am, I like to know the background around pretty much everything. So I looked up the reason why standing is so important in a stand-up, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve made others aware of this reason more than a handful of times over the years.

Standup ceremony
Stand-up ceremony

The reason why we stand in a stand-up

The main reason is actually to cause physical discomfort. People who work in offices aren’t used to standing for long periods of time so the aim is to keep the stand-up short and sweet. If I were to have a stand-up back when I was a barista during my teens, this logic wouldn’t have worked so well - I was used to being on my feet for ~8 consecutive hours every shift!

Be kind, rewind

A stand-up, also known as a ‘scrum’ or ‘huddle’, is a short (~15 minute)recurring meeting, usually on a daily basis. For consistency, it should be held at the same time and place every day (for example in the morning), so that it forms a habit. Its aim is to track the workflow and raise anything that might impede progress to development. All members of the team are required to attend the standup, although some of the roles (the ScrumMaster and Product Owner in Scrum) are silent observers rather than active participants. A facilitator from the team is appointed (often the ScrumMaster) and their role is to ensure the meeting is kept short, that every team member has a chance to provide an update, and that everyone clearly recognises what they should aim to achieve in the coming day.

When bad habits creep in

I’ve observed a lot of stand-up ceremonies, and have seen a lot of concerning behaviours amongst teams. Usually they have been doing the stand-up every day for a few weeks or months when bad habits start to creep in.

Below are some examples of bad habits I’ve seen with stand-ups:

1. Standing up for 30 mins or more is not a stand-up!

I’ve seen some stand-ups last for over an hour - I get physical pains in my heart when I see this! The first thing you start to notice is body-language - people start to shift their weight from one foot to another, they might lean against a wall or table, heck I’ve even seen people take out their phones during long stand-ups.

My advice to teams who can’t seem to keep the stand-up to 15 mins or less? Come up with ground rules. Chances are, someone is talking in too much detail and the majority of attendees have switched off.

One thing that’s worked incredibly well is for people to raise their hand if they feel the information being provided is too much for stand-up. Once 2 people have raised hands, the conversation is stopped and the stand-up is continued. The detailed conversation can happen after the stand-up has finished, with only the relevant people attending (i.e. not the entire stand-up team)

Regardless of whether this rule is implemented or not, there are some discussions that are simply not for stand-up - especially if all the participants aren’t actively involved. It’s okay to interrupt a discussion to point that out, so as not to lose the momentum (and everyone’s attention).

2. Not starting on time is bad practice

“Bob is running 10 minutes late, let’s wait for him”.

“The Product Owner isn’t here yet, let’s wait for her”.

No, no, no. If you have agreed as a team to have this stand-up ceremony at a particular time every day (or every few days if you’re not doing them daily), you start at the agreed time. No waiting for others. This applies to remote calls too. I’ve been in scenarios where there have only been 2 people present to have stand-up, but it still starts on time. Why? This sets a precedent that this is an agreement by the team. If someone who should be there isn’t, they’re letting their teammates down.

Of course, you can ask those who are routinely absent or late to raise it as a topic at the next retrospective if they feel the stand-up time is no longer working, but don’t simpy tardy behaviour. I’ve seen teams that have allowed stand-up to be back by over an hour in the course of just a few months of routine laziness.

3. Talking about every single ticket, including the backlog

Every time I’ve seen this happen it’s been due to a Product Owner wanting to talk about all upcoming priorities. Every day. Do not do this. You don’t have the time to cover this in the short 15 minute slot, and it’s not the priority.

The focus should be on helping team mates who are blocked, and those who need to pair with someone else. If something urgent comes in, it should be classed as a expedite and of course can be spoken about either at the very start or the very end of the ceremony. Otherwise, focus on the work that’s in progress and ensure no-one is left twiddling their thumbs or unable to work due to being blocked.

4. Stand-up for one person

Something I’ve observed on numerous occasions at stand-ups is teams who feel the need to report to one individual, whether it be a manager, Product Owner, Scrum Master or Team Lead. You can often see this happening by looking at people’s faces - are they addressing the group, or the same individual each time? This again misses the point of the stand-up. It’s not a “hey boss, I’m doing work, look at my progress” meeting, it should be beneficial for all attendees.

If you’re observing this kind of behaviour in your team, I hope you have a Scrum Master or Agile Coach to help drill down why it is happening. Ask the person who is being reported to whether they’ve noticed it, and how they feel about it. If all else fails, revisit the purpose of the stand-up as a team, write some ground rules, and display it as a poster in the stand-up area (or put it somewhere accessible like on Slack if the stand-up is remote).

5. Not huddling around the board

I’ve observed stand-ups take place in the kitchen, far away from the team space and most importantly the team board. Whilst I still have a preference for physical boards and physically moving cards around in stand-up, this is difficult to do with remote stand-ups. But even in a video call, have someone share the board on their screen with the rest of the attendees.

Stand-ups are really not useful if the attendees can’t remember what they did the previous day (most common on Mondays following the weekend). Having the board present helps to jog their memories, allowing them to talk about work they’ve completed and is ready for review, as well as what’s in progress.

6. Changing the location of the stand-up too frequently

A lot of the developers I’ve worked with don’t go to many meetings (yay, they can focus on their main job), but this also means that when something like the time of the stand-up or location changes it can be extremely disruptive.

If you do need to change the location periodically, set up a reminder (e.g. in Slack) to let them know where they need to be a few minutes in advance. Even if you’ve reminded the team at the previous stand-up that the location is changing tomorrow, you’re probably not going to get 100% attendance due to forgetfulness. Make it easy on the team by keeping consistency with the location and time.

7. Using the wrong technique

Some people swear by the “Yesterday, Today, Blockers” technique. Sure, I’ve used this too. However, in my experience with every team who uses this technique it becomes the same stand-up every day. “Yesterday I worked on X. Today I will continue working on X. Nothing holding me up." Congratulations, you just did a 10 second stand-up! What do you mean, you didn’t get anything valuable from it? Sigh

Revisit how you do your stand-up, ask questions - what is working for you? What isn’t? What could we try to improve it? Personally, I much prefer to “walk the board” from right to left, talking about one ticket at a time, rather than going one person at a time in a circle. This gives a bit more focus, as people can see their work in progress and are more able to talk about it in a way that is beneficial for everyone present. It also treats the board as the source of truth, and encourages the team to keep it up to date.

Do not settle for 10 second stand-ups just because they’re part of your routine! Make sure the ceremony is adding value.

8. Not identifying unsaid problems

If you have someone working on the same task for days and days and seemingly getting nowhere, they may be too embarrassed to state that they don’t know what they’re doing or need help.

This is where the stand-up facilitator comes in. Just because someone says they don’t need help, doesn’t mean they don’t. Ask them, during the stand-up. “Would you like someone to pair with you on that? Is there anything blocking you at the moment that you’d like some help with?” Chances are the person will open up a bit after being asked such questions, in a way that they never would had they not been prompted. It takes seconds to ask the question and help them, rather than letting them struggle through for even more days! Remember, team work is a key concept in Agile - it’s ok to ask for help from your peers, and that’s a culture you definitely want to foster within teams.

9. Not considering other teams’ stand-ups

I’ve worked in organisations with multiple development teams who shared one open-plan space for their stand-ups. While it’d be nice to have a stand-up area or meeting room, sometimes it’s not possible. If you are in this situation, find out what time the other teams are having their stand-ups so you aren’t having yours at the same time.

I’ve witnessed 3 stand-ups taking place at the same time, right next to each other, in the same area. No value is created when no-one from your team, nevermind 2 other teams, can’t focus because Alice is louder than most and the whole room can hear what she’s working on.

In the same way, I’ve witnessed teams using the same meeting room, and as Team X are wrapping up their stand-up at 10:15, Team Y are knocking on the door to start theirs. While this can help keep the stand-up short, it puts an added pressure on the first team to finish on time, meaning that important information like a team member needing support with a task could be lost.

Be mindful of your colleagues, and plan accordingly.

10. Not ending the stand-up

When the stand-up is over, some of the longer discussions may happen right away, leaving some attendees confused as to whether this is or isn’t part of the stand-up.

Make it clear that the stand-up is over by asking “does anyone have anything else to say in the stand-up?", and be courteous and thank your colleagues for their attendance, and make them aware if they get blocked during the day they don’t need to wait until the next stand-up to let the team know! If you need a couple of people to stay behind to talk about a specific topic, make that clear - everyone else can head to their desks and start the day’s work!