Standup Antipatterns

Almost every place I’ve ever worked has had some form of a standup (or scrum meeting). The more of these meetings I’ve attended, the less value I see in the average standup. The time & disruption cost of a standup is high, and yet we never ask ourselves honestly, Why are we doing this? On the whole, this is a question I think technology leaders ask far too seldom. So many of us are guilty of just going with the flow. We build teams & companies that are basically indistinguishable from each other, taking no risks whatsoever, and never challenging the commonly held conceptions. Standups are a great example of this. They are a ubiquitous symbol of the “kinda Agile” team. Why do we do waste 10’s of man hours every week on standups? Think seriously at the benefit of the last standup you had. Did you get anything from it? Did anyone? Did it really help your team stay in better sync? Of all the purported benefits of a daily standup, I rarely see any take place. In theory, daily standups:

  • Share & Solve Problems: Surface and remove blocks/obstacles
  • Suggest Improvements: Discovered tasks & features brought to light
  • Coordinate Efforts: Keeps the team “in sync”

Be honest with yourself: How often do any of these things actually happen in your standup? Chances are, none of these things really happen in your standup, and even if they do, there are probably more efficient ways of accomplishing them.

Start times

Many organizations misuse the daily standup in order to accomplish ulterior motives. A big one that comes to mind is having a ‘start time’ for the work day. This is especially true for engineering teams. Engineers tend to be night owls, and many organizations & managers see the late morning start times of Engineers as a sign of laziness, or lack of engagement. Management’s “solution” is to implement a standup at the time that is convenient or reasonable to them. There is a myriad of evidence to support the differing productivity cycles of workers — we should all be familiar with Paul Graham’s seminal Maker vs Manager schedule. Great leaders do not impose their view of the productive worker on to their team, but rather embrace the strengths and individuality of each teammate.

Great leaders do not impose their view of the productive worker on to their team, but rather embrace the strengths and individuality of each teammate

How to fix: Survey your team members. Ask them when a reasonable or ideal start time is. Notice how much variance there is in this number. Is it a good idea to force the outliers to work at times that will drive down their productivity? Personally, I advocate the 11:50am standup time (credit to Ableton for this idea). This meeting time has 2 benefits: first, by being just before lunch means it will be speedy — people are hungry and are less likely to get off topic; second, it will not cause an additional interruption to work (as most people will be taking lunch around this time anyways).

The firing squad

This standup is trial by coworkers. Stand and deliver, the peer pressure is on! These standups are common in organizations with hostile or overly competitive environments, where teamwork is in short supply. Usually they are a daily reminder of the toxic team culture that has arisen. You want to foster a collaborative environment, where everyone is working towards a common goal, not put everyones contributions under a microscope.

How to fix: Two part answer:

  • Remind everyone that they can pass during standups. Don’t force people to talk if they have nothing to say.
  • Look at your culture and not your standup. This standup is a symptom of an underlying problem. Building team chemistry is hard, and often counter intuitive, but that is not something that could fit into the scope of this blog post.

Everyone and their mom

The giant standup with 40 people that takes 30+ minutes to complete. Believe it or not — this is a thing, and I’ve lived through it. Everyday, it boggled my mind to think about the 20+ man hours that were flushed down the drain everyday so that we could all get totally irrelevant standup updates from everyone who touched our product. As an engineer, I love to know about the endeavors of marketing, but you have to draw the line somewhere, right?

How to fix: Make sure standups — like teams — are small and modular. If necessary, split up your standups into smaller groups (or better yet, split up your teams).

“when will it ever end??”

Maybe you’ve got a coworker or two who talk too much. Maybe your team has a habit of going into too much detail. One way or another, your standup with <10 people manages to take >10 minutes. You find yourself zoning out, thinking about the things you need to be actually doing work on.

How to fix: Scrum master or Lead should have a stopwatch and give a warning at 1 minute. Also, an 11:50am standup time has an added benefit here, as everyone will be hungry and want to finish!