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Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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FAQs on Standup

What is a standup?
A brief daily meeting at which progress is explained, upcoming work is described and impediments are raised.
Also known as daily scrum. It is a platform for communication and feedback. It is a powerful information radiator and helps teams self organize.
One can think of standups as mini retrospectives AND a mini planning session.

What a standup isn't?
Standups are not intended to generate solutions nor remove obstacles nor make major decisions.
Standups should not be seen as an alternative to formal meetings nor should it prevent issues and obstacles being raised at any time.

What is the objective of these meetings?

  • To provide early and regular feedback on the team‘s progress towards the iteration/sprint goal.
  • To get the whole team move in the same direction by synchronizing development activities with the iteration plan or sprint goals. Can be perceived as a daily checkpoint.
  • To prioritize work items and set focus till the next standup
  • To make obstacles visible and raise awareness early. This allows other team members to provide assistance and work collectively as a team.
  • To increase team building and socialization.

What happens during a standup?
The whole team meets at a pre-decided time, once a day in the team room. The whole team stands in a circle or a U-shaped huddle around the story wall/planning board such that the story cards are in plain view.

In turn, each team member answers the following 3 questions:

  1. What I did since last standup?
  2. What I‘ll be doing today?
  3. Any obstacles to be removed?

The story cards provide a context for the listeners and visual cues for the speaker. If there is anything else, important that the team should know, it is also brought up in this meeting.

Who should attend?
The attendees of a standup are divided into Pigs and Chickens. The concept comes from the following famous ham-and-eggs restaurant joke

The chicken says to the pig, “Let‘s start a restaurant“.
The pig thinks it over and replies, “What would we call this restaurant?“
The chicken says, “Ham n‘ eggs!“
The pig says, “No thanks, I‘d be committed, but you‘d only be involved!”

Only the pigs participate in the meeting. The pigs are team members who have committed to the completion of the current iteration/sprint, i.e. developers, analyst, testers, and Iteration manager/scrum master. The chickens are restricted to observing the proceedings. The chickens are people who have an interest in the iteration/sprint but are not committed to its completion, e.g. onsite customer or product owner, other stakeholders, management.

Should these meeting be time boxed?
The original description of the daily standup called it Daily Scrums with an intention to associate them with the quick and high energy rugby scrum. Hence the name signifies the importance of short, high energy, effective, to the point meeting. Trying to time box these meetings with a timer, means that the team has not understood the essence of standups.

Some people are talkative and tend to wander off into Story Telling. While others, might be eager to jump into Problem Solving mode immediately after hearing a problem. Meetings that take too long tend to have low-energy and participants not directly related to a long discussion will tend to be distracted. And the standups lose their effectiveness.

Instead of time boxing the meetings, physical discomfort due to standing can be a good way to limit the length of these meetings. It is important to remind the team, that a standup is a platform to communicate the status and not serve as an issue resolution nor problem solving nor decision making meetings.

When to schedule this meeting?
I have tried 3 schedules.

  • First thing in the morning
  • Mid day, around lunch
  • End of day

First thing in the morning works really well if all the team members are available in the morning at the same time. The standups mark the beginning of their day and help them plan the day. Also helps them to keep the focus on high priority deliverables. It helps the manager to know about any obstacles at the beginning of the day. Leaving the rest of the day to resolve them.

First thing in the morning might not work for companies which have flexible work hours. It is important to have all the team members. Ideally by afternoon all the team members are in office and it can be a good time for everyone to touch base. It is important to disassociate beginning of the day with standups in this case. Else, team members who are in early, might not work on any project deliverables.

End of day standups work when team members what to communicate what they have accomplished during the day and want to start fresh next morning. Also when you have distributed teams working in different time zones, end of day standups might be ideal to hand over to the next team.

The schedule can get greatly affected when the project is distributed. It is important to keep in mind that standups need all the team members to be present.

Should the meeting me held at the same time every day?
It‘s important for the meeting to start at the same time every day. It brings the ritual/habit feeling to the practice. It also helps the team feel like they own the meeting. It also allows any interested observers to simply drop-in unannounced to get an update on progress.

Also don‘t wait for stragglers. The meeting is a whole team practice and is not for any individual.

Do you need a facilitator? Who should kick off the meeting?
If the team is just adapting the practice, it might be helpful to have a facilitator who reminds everyone about the meeting, helps people keep the focus and avoids any interruptions. The most important job of the facilitator is to help the team self organize and quickly fade into the background.

It is not important for the facilitator to kick off the meeting. Any team member can kick off the meeting.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure these meetings are working?
As any agile practice, standups are BY the people, FOR the people and OF the people. Hence the team should own the meetings and ensure its effectiveness. The facilitator can only help them kick start it initially.

Are standups optional for team members?
Since standups are about communication and feedback, it is important for all the team members to be present. Compulsory attendance helps the team members view the meeting as a habit and own it. Of course if a team member is going on vacation or is not feeling well they can skip the meeting. But when they do come back, along with the story wall and big visible charts, the standup will help them get the bigger picture.

Are standups another name for status report meeting?
The daily status meeting is meant to be an opportunity for the team members to report to the team on their progress and obstacles. If the team members are reporting to the Process Facilitator (or the Product Owner, or the project manager or the executive who just happens to join the meeting) then those people might change what they report and how they feel about the meeting. It will no longer be open nor useful to the other team members.

Standup is the team‘s primary opportunity to self-organize. The outcome should be that the team has collectively agreed what to work on today, and what impediments they need their manager [Iteration manager/Scrum Master] to remove along the way.

If we think of the standup in-terms of “answering three questions“, it contributes to the difficulty of getting people away from reporting progress/status to the managers. Apparently words like “answer“ and “question” tend to be associated with ideas closer to being interrogated rather than communicating information.

Hence it is important to see the team members do not treat this as time to report progress to their boss. When answering these questions the team member should talk to the team and not to the manager.

What is the purpose of a semaphore or token?
A semaphore or a token can be a rubber ball or any object which can be held by each person giving the status. Only the person holding the semaphore is allowed to talk. This helps keep the focus by avoiding long-winded discussions. If other people want to provide feedback, the semaphore holder may allow it by passing the semaphore to them, but should often say “let‘s discuss this in detail after the standup”. The purpose of the standup is communication, not problem solving.

When a speaker is done, they can throw the semaphore to a random person instead of just handing it to the person on their left or right. This forces everyone to stay more alert, as no one knows who‘s next.

Can I talk if I do not have the semaphore? Is it OK to interrupt someone?
It should be OK to interrupt the person giving the status to help better communication/understanding. Interrupting should be an exception rather than a norm. If someone is really interested in details, they should take it offline and let the flow continue.

People should ask for the semaphore before talking/interrupting. This lets the person speaking an opportunity to complete their point. It helps in a constructive discussion rather than total chaotic discussion.

How much detail should we get into?
This is one of the most difficult questions. The amount of detail really depends on the team. Standups try and communicate the day to day status of the team, such that everyone attending the meeting has an idea of who is doing what and whether or not they are facing any roadblocks.

Team size has an important role to play when it comes to details. The smaller the team, the easier it is communicate. Hence on smaller teams you would see a much more intense standup discussion than what you would see on a larger team.

One good feedback on the amount of details is, when you see team members distracted, it means that people are getting into too much detail and the rest of the team is losing interest.

If I have paired the whole day with another person, should I repeat the tasks?
Certainly not. The point of a standup is effective communication. So, if your pair has already communicated about your tasks, just say Ditto and tell what you plan to do today. Also, if the pair had missed some point/s, you can add it, but not repeat the whole thing again.

Are there any pre-requisites for conducting standups?

  • The team members should feel comfortable/safe expressing themselves.
  • Team members should be able to communicate with each other. For Ex. having distributed teams and no oral communication can be a big bottleneck.
  • Even though I have mentioned story wall and big visible charts goes hand in hand with standups, it is not really a pre-requisite. Certainly standups can be very effective with them.
  • Following agile methodology is also not a pre-requisite for standups.

Can we have more than one standup in a day?
Thought daily standups are meant to be held once a day, there might be situations where it would be helpful to have a second standup with/without chickens. This is basically to bring the team closer and communicate more often.

When working with distributed teams, it might be helpful to have more than one standup. Evening standup can serve as a hand-off meeting and the morning standup can server as a take-over meeting.

Again no silver bullet, one needs to find out what works for them.

Can standup be distributed?
Distributed standups are certainly not as effective as having a standup with all the team members standing face-to-face. Certainly, “something is better than nothing” rule applies in this case.

Standups are very effective when it comes to hand-offs. At the end of day for one team, when the other team is coming in, the first team can explain what they achieved today and what needs to be done. The second team can pick up from there, clarify any doubts and start from there.

Is it OK for the team members to make notes during the standup?
If that‘s how team members work, it should be fine. But if there is an information overload happening and team members are afraid they would forget something, then, it is certainly a red flag.

Ideally standups should be short and crisp. This means, they do not generate hell lot of points for people to remember. But if there is an information overload happening, may be, we are getting into too many details or we have too many people involved in the meeting. Either ways, it should be fixed. Overloading people with information defeats the purpose of effective communication.

Should the team members prepare for this meeting?
Standups goes hand in hand with the story wall and the big visible charts. It would be very helpful if team members keep the story wall up-to-date all the time. At least they should make sure before the standup the story wall is up-to-date. It is also helpful to have the big visible charts updated before the standup, so that the team can refer to it during the standup.

If the team is working on small story cards which have 4–8 hrs tasks, then it can be very easy to just refer to the cards during the standup. This avoids any detail prep work required before the meeting.

Initially when the team is starting with this practice, it is helpful for people to take a few mins before the standup and think about the 3 questions. It helps them to have crisp answers during the meeting. With some practice, prep work will disappear.

Should we update the story wall, big visible charts, etc during the standup?
Ideally should be done before the standup, as the standup depends on updated info from these. Sometimes it is also helpful to revisit these after the standup to make sure they are in sync with the discussion had in the meeting.

Do we decide pairs during the standups?
Ideally, soon after the standup the pairs would gather near the story wall and decide their pairs based on the cards. Sometimes I find it helpful to have this discussion before the standup.

Is standup a substitute for full-length meetings or any kind of team interaction?
Startup meetings are not a substitute for the normal [so called formal] meetings. They should certainly not stop people from communicating frequently. If a team member or a pair finds something important during the course of the day, which can affect other people‘s work, they should immediately communicate it to the team and not wait till the standup. On the other hand, if the information is not critical and does not affect anyone, then it can probably wait till the next standup.

One thing I have noticed is, as the standups become more and more effective, the need for formal meetings can reduce quite a bit.

Is there any accountability in these meetings? What if someone is absent?
Standups are daily checkpoints. They let one know what‘s happening from day to day. It is a platform for sharing information that is relevant to yesterday, today, and maybe tomorrow. Thus, records are unnecessary and attendance is only required if you‘re present on the day. If someone goes on holiday for two weeks, they can go to the stand-up meeting when they come back. They‘ll get a good idea of what everyone‘s up to, and when it comes to their turn to speak, they‘ll say “Well, I don‘t know what I‘m doing today, and I need to be filled in with what happened while I was gone“, and the facilitator or a team member will say ”OK, why don‘t you and x talk about that after the meeting?

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