The Importance of Format
I have been doing morning standups for many years now. For the most part I really like them. At their best, a team can find a peaceful place to talk honestly about the work, get a quick and accurate feeling of where they are and a feeling of being in the same boat. On the other hand, at their worst they can feel corny, pointless, boring, like reporting to a manager or just something we are supposed to do.
Why does it work sometimes and other times not? Mostly I think it is about the people, their relationships, and the company culture. A broken team conducts broken meetings. The facilitator is another important factor. For example, if she cannot guide the team in finding a fruitful path between skimming over problems and irrelevant detail, the standups will feel pointless or dull, respectively.
Finally, I do believe that the format of the meeting plays a significant role as well. Think of it this way: If you knew there was a format that would increase the likelihood of that great experience and minimise the time spent in the bad one, would you try to find it? I really want to urge people to experiment more with your standups.
Most people are familiar with the standard Scrum format. You go around the circle and each person in the team answers three questions: 1. What have you done since last time? 2. What are you going to do today? 3. Do you have any impediments to progress?
The great thing about this format is that it gets everybody talking, which builds team spirit. Also, it is easy to spot if someone is having a problem. The downside is that it’s more about the people than about the work. And it can get pretty time-consuming and repetitive for a larger team.
Another format, often called Walk the Board, has grown popular these last years. It moves focus from the people over to the actual work. It is adapted from Lean manufacturing and was designed to handle work covering many teams or larger groups of people.
This is the way it works: Instead of taking turns, the team comments on the stories that are currently active. For each story, the people working on the story, or someone taking responsibility of the story, helps everybody understand what is happening with it. It is especially important to focus on stuff that it is disrupting a rapid conclusion.
This way is much faster because the number of active stories should typically be much fewer than the number of people. If you are working really effectively, there should only be one or two active stories. Also, the conversation focuses on the work process and not whether Matt has a headache. The downside is that not everybody gets to speak except the most engaged or dominant people in the team. Smart, quiet people are left out. This way also makes it hard to spot if someone needs extra help or support to do their work.
A Form Experiment
I thought a bit about this and devised a new format – a combo format, if you like. My objective was to keep most of the good stuff and get rid of the bad parts. Here it is:
- Walk the board. For each story, collaboratively talk about what has happened since last time. Unearth any snags, blocks or other impediments. Then, set our common targets for today.
- For each one who has not spoken, let them tell us what they have been up to and what they are aiming for today. Look for ways to include their work on the board.
- Ask: “Any additional information from anybody, which we would all benefit to hear?” Here, I may remind them about a coaching session today. Or someone shares there personal disasters of the morning and asks to be excused in advance for any foul temper.
We have been using the format for about seven weeks now and it seems to work out pretty sweet. We talk about the work, everybody gets to speak, good information is spread around and it all takes 10 minutes or less for 6-7 people. Really, no meeting has been longer than 10 minutes.
The 2nd point has an additional purpose: It gives people like product leaders, operations guys, and representatives from collaborator teams a chance to talk at our meeting. In our current context, they are not part of the team full time and their work is not always visible on the board. This is not ideal, but if that is our reality right now, we need to adapt.
Any downsides? One thing I am not perfectly happy with is that question number 2 often turns into number 3, i.e. just information. It can be hard to see if these guys are making progress. Also, very few impediments are being reported, which I think is a bit of a bad smell. But we’ll keep trying and experimenting to see if we can iron out these wrinkles.
Please go ahead and try the format if you like. I’d love to hear from you if you do and what you thoughts are. But perhaps my main point is this: Don’t get stuck in a rut. Experiment with your standups until they feel just right – for you.