Do you dread your daily standup? Do you despair of ever getting it into 15 minutes? Do you argue about what’s appropriate to discuss in it, and no matter what you try, somebody’s butthurt and it still takes an hour? You’re probably doing it by the book, and that means you are doing it wrong. Learn The One Thing to make it work.
The traditional standup ceremony is wrong
For years, we’ve said that in the daily standup, each team member should answer these three questions:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- Is anything blocking you?
Back in the day, my own team noticed that those questions are fundamentally awful. We and our colleagues would drone on about how we spent our time, which nobody cared about, and the meeting seemed endless and boring and our feet got tired. The standup isn’t supposed to be a status meeting, and yet question #1 is almost always treated as a status question; we didn’t mean to, but we did.
The revised traditional standup ceremony is still wrong
Years ago, my team and I came up with what I thought was a clever modification:
- What did you accomplish yesterday?
- What will you get done today?
- Is anything blocking you?
It’s very similar to the most recent changes in the Scrum Guide, which add “… to help the Development Team achieve the Sprint Goal” to the appropriate questions.
It didn’t help.
I think it didn’t help because I think they are still the wrong three questions, they focus the team on the wrong thing, and in so doing they invite the wrong discussion.
How does this happen?
I worked with a client’s team this summer and together we introduced a physical Kanban board into their existing iterative process. Daily, while standing in front of a truly ugly board with way too much Work In Process (WIP) on it, none of which ever moved, that they had no hope of actually finishing, they dutifully answered their three questions and went back to work. On the second-to-last day of the sprint, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. After they’d finished answering the three questions, I blurted out:
“Guys! When does your sprint end?”
“This stuff!” I pointed at the board. “This! Are you going to get it all done by then?”
They all hung their heads. Actually hung them. They knew. No way.
Why hadn’t they seen it before? Right in front of them! Hell, there was a single story on the board, that only one dev ever worked on, with an estimate written on it of 150 hours. The math on that, in a two-week sprint, is not favorable.
And that’s when I realized: by focusing on the three wrong things, they’d missed the right thing. The only thing that matters. The One Thing.
Why does it matter?
First, the daily standup is an accepted practice in agile, even lean, because it’s so important. It exemplifies, among other things, the lean principle of fast feedback and the agile principle of self-organizing teams. When it isn’t working, at best it’s a missed opportunity; more often it’s a symptom that agile itself isn’t working.
Second, one of the most common arguments that I hear from teams and managers against agile is “meeting overhead”. Introducing frequent meetings for grooming, planning, show-and-tell, and retrospective are worrying enough to teams, but when you pile on a “15-minute” standup that really takes an hour every single day, sirens and alarm bells start going off. Rightly so. Teams who find their productivity clobbered by meeting overhead are likely to abandon agile altogether.
Bad standups are an existential threat to agility.
The One Thing
The daily standup is not for the “how” or even for the “what”. It’s for the “whether”.
In agile, we define short-term goals. Scrum makes this easy: the goal is whatever work we took into our sprint, and our target is sprint-end. (Short-term goals in Kanban are complicated; I’ll save that for a future post.)
The only question that matters in a daily standup is, “are we on track to meet our goal by our target?”
That’s it. The One Thing.
How does The One Thing help?
The One Thing reminds the team what the standup is for: to ensure that they’re on track to deliver as they intend. That’s what it’s always been for.
When the team is on track, The One Thing ensures they’re rewarded with a smooth, pleasant, mercifully short and to-the-point daily standup.
When the team isn’t on track, The One Thing focuses everyone’s attention on fixing whatever’s jeopardizing their success.
The One Thing exposes smells, too. For example, if the team doesn’t know or can’t agree on what the goal is, The One Thing makes that clear quickly, so the team can address it.
The One Thing in practice
Nowadays, my daily standups always start the same way: with a fist-to-five on the question, “how confident are you that we will meet our goal by our target?”
If everyone on the team is a 4 or a 5, the standup is over. Yes, really. Done. Make it so.
If there are any 3s, the team needs to discuss blockers or risks and prioritize getting them cleared. Identify slow-moving stories and swarm on them. It’s OK to be 3s for a day or two, but the team needs a plan to get to 4 or 5 quickly.
If there are any 2s or lower, the team probably needs to start negotiating scope: “what can we achieve by our target?” Limit WIP to those top-priority items in order to salvage as much value as possible.
How do they know The One Thing?
By visualizing their work, preferably continuously (meaning, don’t wait for the standup to update the board). I like a physical Kanban board for this, but whatever works. Holding the standup in front of an up-to-date board makes The One Thing easy to ask, answer, and validate.
The Rules of The One Thing
What comments are appropriate at the standup? Any that convey information that affects the answer to The One Thing.
What questions are appropriate at the standup? Any whose answers affect the answer to The One Thing.
Who can speak in the standup? Anyone who can contribute something that affects the answer to The One Thing.
Wait, does that mean chickens can talk in the standup? Yes, if and only if they are bringing the team information that affects the answer to The One Thing. For example, a product owner might announce a change in scope or priority. You’d want to know that before you get back to work.
What if the team is confident of The One Thing… and they’re wrong? Don’t they need to discuss it, to make sure their confidence is warranted?
No. It is not the purpose of the standup to convince anyone outside of the team that the team’s answer to The One Thing is correct.
If the team is struggling to get a reliable delivery cadence, their own confidence votes should reflect their uncertainty. If an honest assessment of progress isn’t happening in the standup, then the place to discuss it is the retrospective. Or a separate ad hoc meeting, if the retrospective isn’t soon enough. But not the standup itself.
Like everything else in agile, The One Thing assumes a self-organizing team of qualified, motivated individuals. If you don’t have one of those, playing around with the rules of your standup will not fix it; stop reading this blog post and consult your HR department.
After The One Thing
Once the answer to The One Thing has been achieved to the team’s satisfaction, the daily standup is over. Yes, really.
Now, take a moment to explicitly end the standup and dismiss everyone. Don’t take it for granted; do it out loud, using words. This is incredibly important for two reasons:
- Ending the standup makes clear to the team that the standup is over. :) More to the point, it demonstrates that whatever happens afterward is not the standup’s fault.
- Dismissing everyone gives team members permission to decide for themselves whether to leave and get back to work, or stay and talk. Conversation and collaboration are awesome, but after the standup they must be voluntary!
Resist the temptation to treat the standup as a captive audience. The purpose of the standup is The One Thing and The One Thing only. If you need a team meeting, schedule one.
The One Thing summarized: the essential daily standup
- Ask The One Thing: “are we on track to meet our goal by our target?”
- If the answer is “yes”, dismiss everyone and get back to work
- If the answer is anything other than “yes”, decide what to do
- Explicitly end
What do you think? Can you envision a faster, more focused, more useful daily standup using this technique? One that maybe 80% of your team look forward to attending because it’s valuable to them and the incorrigible 20% grudgingly admit they don’t hate? Can you see the daily standup actually contributing to the team’s overall delivery success? Will your team celebrate its success by doing one-armed push-ups?
Try it and let me know how The One Thing works for you!
(And send me a video if you do the push-ups.)