For the past six months, I’ve been facilitating my team’s daily stand-ups. I’m not a Scrum Master by training — I’m an interaction designer on a 5-member design team — but as we worked to improve our efficiency and processes on a long-term engagement, I took on the mantle of facilitator for our quick, daily syncs.
During our last retro, we discussed how our daily stand-ups have improved our performance, and it prompted me to reflect on the impact that deliberate, thoughtful effort to this seemingly small meeting has had on us as a whole. On reflection, I realized that the better we got at our daily stand-ups, the more collaborative we became and the stronger our work got. We were able to see how each of our individual stories related to one another’s and we were able to take a more expansive view of the product, which helped us to increase the value we delivered to our client.
Recognizing the value that improving our daily stand-ups had on our overall delivery, I wanted to share what I learned as a facilitator: what had the greatest impact, where small investments paid off, and what even non-Scrum experts can change to help improve team functioning.
More than just “annoying early-morning meetings”: Our challenges (and how we solved them)
Stand-ups are easy to overlook: they’re short (how important can a 15-minute meeting be?), they often take place first thing in the morning (ugh!), and they seem incredibly simple (only three questions?!). But if done well, they have the potential to transform your team. To make them effective, however, you need to recognize their value and adhere to what might, at first, seem like too-rigid guidelines for what should be an informal review.
When I started facilitating my team’s stand-ups, we were facing some serious challenges.
Challenge 1: We didn’t know what our teammates were doing.
We were working for a client with complicated terminology and lots of acronyms, and we were referring to our stories by their Jira ticket number or ticket name. That made it hard to understand what teammates were working on or to identify related stories, and as a result, we missed opportunities to offer each other help and peer review.
We were stuck working in silos. It was keeping us from being able to collaborate effectively as well as leaving us feeling overwhelmed with the problems we had to solve individually.
One of the first things I did when I took on facilitating was encourage our team to give a sentence or two of context as part of their updates, instead of the obtuse language of technical lingo and ticket numbers. Once we stopped referring to our stories in a jargony way and articulated what they were about, team members were able to offer help and resources.
Once we were comfortable with the additional context, we took things a step further and began pairing up to work through specific tickets together though short (hour-long) collaborative sketching sessions. The first time we did it was an experiment: Would it work? Is there time for it in the sprint? How do we prioritize which items get collaborative effort and which ones don’t?
Happily, once we started testing the idea, we were able to structure it in a way that fit our timelines and supported our teammates. Not only did it work, but it worked so much better than expected that it became a regular practice.
Adding in the additional context to each person’s update did add a small amount of overhead to the standup, but not enough to delay our meetings significantly and ultimately, it saved us time when we were able to take more actionable outcomes to improve our work outside of standup. The collaboration that came from it, for example, was quick and it gave us a chance to share ideas and gain a broader view of the product. And best of all, we found it fun!
Challenge 2: We started late and took too long.
Another problem we had, and that I think many teams encounter, was we were struggling with time-boxing. First and foremost, we weren’t getting started on time. Once we finally did get going, we ended up wasting time figuring out who would go next and often the lag meant we lost focus from the team. It took a lot more time out of our mornings than a standup should and what’s worse, it was a low-energy, somewhat demotivating way to begin the day.
When I first started facilitating our stand-ups, I would wait for everyone to arrive, and we would waste 15 minutes (remember: the meeting itself is only supposed to be 15 minutes). Everyone expected we would start late, so everyone arrived late. It was a self-perpetuating issue.
The first step to solving our time-box issues was getting started on time. I began starting meetings as soon as there were enough teammates present to reasonably do so. Latecomers could give their updates as they arrived. Once we started to socialize the idea that we start stand-up on time, our whole team started arriving more promptly.
It wasn’t just arrival time that slowed down our starts, though. We were wasting time each meeting getting all the information we needed in front of us. Another change I instituted was to get set-up for stand-up ahead of time. Instead of wasting a good 5 minutes (a third of the meeting!) logging in to Jira and getting the board on screen, I made sure as facilitator I was ready to start the meeting on time, which further encouraged on-time arrivals.
Lastly, I found that it helped to have a clear order for the updates. Initially, we were going through our updates in the order that we were seated in the meeting room. But that was confusing for teammates joining us remotely and wasted time when someone wasn’t sure if it was their turn to speak.
Following our client’s example, we decided to try using filters in Jira to pull up each member of the team’s stories. With the filters set up, our names were arranged horizontally across the top of the Jira board. During our stand-up, I’d flip through the names from left to right. Doing this let everyone see where we were and who was up next, whether they were co-located or remote — no more wasting time figuring out whose turn it was to go next.
These three quick and easy-to-implement solutions to our time-box issues had a big impact on overall meeting performance.
Challenge 3: We had a problem with attendance.
Another issue we faced — arguably the biggest — was attendance. In order for stand-ups to be effective, the whole team is supposed to attend the meeting. We rarely had everyone there and frequently, our team lead missed the meeting. Trying to catch her later to discuss issues or uncertainties was slowing our velocity and without full attendance from other members, we were missing crucial context and knowledge-share opportunities.
This one had the potential to be awkward to fix: our team lead was busy and when she or others missed the meeting, the only way to resolve it was to call them out individually which felt too pointed. Our solution? Raise it in retro.
By addressing the issue in a team meeting specifically designed to deal with sticky issues, we were able to inspect the problem and discuss potential solutions in a calm, methodical way — without having to single anyone out.
It was during retro we learned our team lead regularly had conflicting meetings, and that was why she was so often missed our stand-ups (we had no idea!). What might have felt like a dismissal of the meeting to our team was, in fact, a conflict with client meetings. Once we identified the cause of the issue — not just the symptom — we were able to generate potential solutions.
We decided, as a trial, to move our stand-up half an hour earlier (I can hear you groaning) to make it easier for our team lead to attend. None of us loved the idea of starting earlier, but everyone agreed to try it. I’ll be the first to admit it was a little painful initially, but it dramatically improved our attendance, and we’ve continued our stand-ups at this earlier time successfully since then. It’s not a perfect solution: we have more members of the team joining stand-up from home, which is not ideal. But it has meant we’re getting full attendance more often and we can continue to iterate on how to improve things now that we’ve opened the dialogue on this issue.
Our specific challenges were important to resolve, of course, but running an effective standup also requires following some generally accepted best practices. I’ve listed out some tools and tips below, to help you in implementing or improving your own standups.
Tools and Tips
Myplanet has a mature lean and agile practice, and I was fortunate to work with our company’s Agile Coach, David Colburn, and take part in Agile Facilitation and Scrum training sessions as I took on the role of facilitator.
Formal training is great if you have it available to you, but it’s by no means the only way to learn more about running daily stand-ups or daily scrums.
Here is an outline of the standup format we use and some tips for the facilitator and attendees to make the most of your daily sync.
Daily Stand-ups or Daily Scrums are short progress meetings that teams practicing Agile or Scrum hold. They should be:
- Held at the same time and place every day (ideally in the morning)
- Only 15 minutes long (teams that practice Scrum firmly end them at 15 minutes even if everyone has not gotten a chance to speak — we were a little more flexible in our approach)
- Attended by the whole team
- Team members give updates on their work (most commonly using some version of the “3 Questions”: (1) what did you do yesterday (2) what are you going to do today (3) any impediments or blocks.)
- Facilitated by any member of the team or a by a Scrum Master (for teams that practice Scrum)
Tips for the Facilitator:
- Anyone can facilitate. It doesn’t have to be the same person all the time!
- Don’t forget to take a minute to collect your thoughts on your updates. Assuming that you’re not a Scrum Master, you’re also likely an individual contributor on the team. It might help to write them down so that you don’t forget. Facilitating takes more focus than you might think!
- Encourage your teammates to meet in person.
- Encourage remote attendees to turn on their webcams. It’s not always easy, but you can lead by example, and over time the team will get more comfortable with the idea of seeing each other’s faces on screen.
- Pay close attention to each person’s update, so that you can identify and encourage teammates who are working on similar stories, or who might have context to share, to collaborate.
- Be aware of how you ask questions and of any jargon you’re using. Many teams ask “Do you have any blocks?” to find out if there’s anything getting in the way of the work, but we found our team interpreted “block” as a serious impediment, and rarely said yes, even when they did need help. We found much more success asking, “Is there anything holding you back or slowing you down that the team might be able to help with?”
Tips for Attendees:
- Focus you attention on your teammates, not on the person leading the meeting. Even if it’s your boss, this isn’t your update to them, it’s for the team.
- If you’re joining the meeting remotely, turn on your camera. It’s easier to focus your attention on your teammates when you can see their faces and they can see yours.
- Use language to describe what you’re working on that everyone else will understand and frame it in the broader context of the project if you can.
- Don’t zone out until your turn comes. It’s essential to pay attention to your teammates so that you can offer or ask for help, or clarify who is doing what when there are overlapping stories.
That’s it! It’s easy to dismiss such a quick meeting as inconsequential, to treat it as a throw-away that doesn’t require or deserve much thought. But it can have an enormous impact on performance and team health for all organizations. It can be hard to see the value of caring about 15 minutes in an 8 hour day, but well-run stand-ups pay dividends. Over six months of facilitating them for our team, I learned first-hand just how big those dividends could be.
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