Standups are not status updates!

When a team is in the early stages of adopting agile, it’s very common for them to adopt the visible artefacts without necessarily capturing the purpose – and more importantly the benefits. Many teams choose Scrum as a starting point, and an easy and visible thing to do is to implement a Standup. The idea is very simple; the whole team take a few minutes to provide a quick update to each other and answer 3 questions: what did you do yesterday, what do you plan to do today, and are there any impediments or blockers. The updates are given while standing, to encourage brevity, hence the name Standup. Observing a team’s Standup can be surprisingly revealing, as it often gives a microcosm of the overall culture of the team.

Who coordinates the standup can set the tone. In organizations that are used to having more traditional projects, it is easy but dangerous to appoint a “scrum-master”, whose job is actually to be a project manager. If the team are giving “status updates”, for the benefit of this person, who in turn is collecting status updates for the benefit of management, there are a lot of things going wrong already! The role of scrum-master is a subtle and delicate one, acting mainly as a coach and facilitator, who is enabled to act with authority on behalf of the team to remove impediments, as a servant-leader. The standup is not for the scrum-master’s benefit; it is for the team’s benefit. The updates should not be directed at the scrum-master, but at the team in general. The scrum-master’s main objective from a standup is to ensure the team is running smoothly, and to intervene if he is able to help.

  • The scrum master can make an effort to stay out of the limelight
  • This could be by avoiding eye contact with the speaker, to discourage them from focusing too much on her
  • This could be by purposely stepping back from the group, again to break line of sight and encouraging the speaker to engage the group instead
  • She could go as far as to interrupt people who are addressing them directly and remind them to give their update to the team
  • In an extreme case, we tried making the scrum-master wear a brown paper bag on their head as a light-hearted way of signifying to them that they should let the team self-organize more

Sometimes status update standups can be a symptom of low confidence or morale in the team, or a consequence of the team feeling under pressure. People are trying to give updates that justify themselves, and that make their output look good. Being honest is really important for agile teams, and if someone is struggling, it is far better that they are able to ask for help. If something isn’t going well, the team can use standups as a chance to flag the problem and leverage more of the team’s capacity and skills to overcome the problems. For this to work, standups (and the team’s culture in general) have got to be a “safe place” where everyone can talk openly. If your team suffer from the “status update” anti-pattern, it may be an indication of a far larger problem with the organization and perhaps even with trust.

  • Retrospectives can help a team to open up; people may feel they are the only one who isn’t confident about something, and sharing their experience may help the team identify and resolve a wider problem
  • The team can hold their standups behind closed doors, to make it absolutely clear that the information exchanged isn’t being used against them
  • The scrum-master can encourage the team to pick up stories as pairs, which reduces the pressure individuals could feel
  • The scrum-master and more senior team members can make a strong effort to keep the discussion positive and offer help more readily, rather than waiting for people to ask
  • Senior team members can make a point of asking for help themselves, to make it clear that doing so isn’t a sign of weakness

Sometimes, the order in which the team answer the questions itself can have a profound effect. Starting with an update on the previous day implies that this is the most important thing. In reality, it is probably the least important thing, because it’s in the past and has already happened, and the team can probably find out what has been done in other ways such as looking in version control or at completed tickets. Some people can have a tendency to describe what they did the previous day in great depth, which is actually not that interesting to most of the team, and the standup can drag on a bit.

  • Try flipping the order of the questions – start with the plan for today, which flows naturally into any impediments, and finish with a shorter update on yesterday
  • Try opening the standup by asking the whole group whether anyone has any blockers, rather than placing people on the spot

Some of the best teams I’ve worked with have actually done away with standups altogether; the team communicated informally without prompting whenever they needed to, so an organized ceremony was simply not needed. If standups are really not working for your team, perhaps to the point where they do more harm than good, why not try setting up a decent communications channel and seeing how the team do without – the results might be surprising. The team might find that without standups they struggle to coordinate their efforts, and choose to re-instigate them – and odds are the new wave of standups will be far more effective, because the team have chosen to do them, and experienced for themselves the problems that standups can solve, rather than going through the motions. Equally the team may find that they are able to self-organize, which is a great sign of growth along the agile journey.