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6 basic things you shouldn't be doing during daily stand-up

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Kym Gilhooly B2B tech journalist and editor, Independent
A daily stand-up meeting keeps agile teams on task as they proceed toward their sprint goal. In keeping with the flexibility of agile methods, the stand-up meeting doesn't have a lot of rules, but the few that it does have are important to follow.

A daily stand-up, or daily scrum, is an integral component of a sprint and it helps keep agile teams on task. Keeping these meetings effective is not always an easy task.

In the early 2000s, when Michele Sliger was senior project manager for the first scrum team at a large company testing the agile development waters, her team regularly arrived late for daily stand-ups. Over time, the meeting-driven company had created a culture wherein meetings of all types typically started 10 to 15 minutes behind schedule, to accommodate employees walking between different office buildings across the expansive campus.

"A daily stand-up is 15 minutes long, so if you arrive 10 minutes late, you're screwing over everyone," says Sliger, now president at Sliger Consulting, a provider of agile coaching services. Here's Sliger's perspective, and how anyone new to agile methods can benefit from the concept of a daily stand-up meeting.

Daily stand-up etiquette

In keeping with the flexibility of agile methods, a daily stand-up doesn't have a lot of rules, but the ones it does have are important, says Art Pittman, principal coach at InnerJoining LLC. "To be good at scrum, you have to hold yourself accountable to a few simple rules."

One rule is that the team commit to the stand-up. To bolster commitment, it should take place at the same time every day and last just 15 minutes. Another rule is that each team member answer three basic questions:

  • What have you done since the last meeting to help the team meet its sprint goal?
  • What will you do today?
  • What's currently hampering your progress?

The stand-up's purpose, as Eliassen Group agile coach Dave Moran explains, is to help teams understand what's happening in their sprint so they'll always be progressing. "It should serve as a planning meeting, not a status meeting," he says.

Ensuring the task board is in place aids planning by helping teams visualize progress. And at the stand-up's conclusion, members should be ready to proceed with their work for the day.

6 mistakes people make during daily stand-up meetings

Daily scrums are an integral component of a sprint. When they're ineffective, teams should review their process or bring in an agile coach to see what's causing them to go astray. In some cases, they're simply ignoring the stand-up's basic rules. Things teams shouldn't be doing in stand-ups include:

1. Showing up late

A stand-up's brevity requires that team members be prompt. In Sliger's experience, tardiness has been the leading problem with daily scrums, as was the case in the daily stand-ups for the team she was leading in 2002.

Together, the team decided to charge late arrivals a dollar, which would go into a pool to be donated to charity. And it worked for a couple of weeks, until one developer handed her a $5 bill on a Monday and said he'd be late for the entire week.

They regrouped. The next penalty? Late arrivals had to sing, which put a scare into everybody at first.

"It worked fine until this new guy joined our team about four weeks later," Sliger says. "When he was late, he played a mean air guitar while he sang, and it got to the point that we were hoping he would show up late."

Frustration built to the point where one developer, addressing a chronically late team member, said, "I'd like to pick up the nearest stapler and throw it at your head." Everyone laughed but agreed they were equally annoyed. Riffing off the woman's statement, they opted to buy a bunch of Koosh balls, which they placed in a bowl at the daily scrum location. Late arrivals forced to fend off a barrage of projectiles quickly got the hint.

Although the Koosh balls served as a powerful messenger, Sliger believes the turning point came when the developer vented her anger at the lack of respect for the team's time. "I think it was that outburst that made everyone realize that we were cheating ourselves and our projects," she says.

2. Sitting down

It sounds trite, but team members and stakeholders attending stand-ups need to do just that: stand up. "When people sit down, they get complacent," says Pittman, who observes that teams are more likely to use the time to deliver status reports when they're "embedded in chairs," whereas they should be planning and identifying situations when members need to convene post-meeting to address roadblocks.

Sliger says it's not uncommon to run into the "sit-down" situation with geographically distributed teams. During one engagement, her team clued into the fact that a team in another location was sitting down because they sounded so relaxed when running through the three questions. "When we asked if they were standing up," Sliger recalls, "we heard sighs and chairs scraping as they pushed back from the conference table to stand up."

3. Rambling on

In a stand-up, each team member should be prepared to succinctly answer the three questions cited above. These questions give the meeting structure, says Moran. "Otherwise, people start talking about all kinds of things that don't relate to the team."

This structure helps keep the team from using the stand-up for problem-solving. If a member cites a problem they're having, a high-performing team will quickly identify who can help so the issue can be addressed after the meeting wraps up.

Just as it helps train late arrivals, Sliger's Koosh ball strategy works to curtail rambling. When a team member who's thinking out loud sees someone make a move toward the bowl to pick up a ball, they wrap things up.

4. Not listening, especially when a scrum mate needs help

Sometimes team members are so focused on their turn to talk, they don't listen to what their counterparts are saying. Moran observed one stand-up wherein a QA specialist clearly stated the impediments — a server she needed wasn't working; there were problems with some development tool licensing — that prevented her from completing that day's tasks. When she finished, each person proceeded to answer the questions and the meeting adjourned.

"I had to stop them to point out that someone had stated her impediments and they had basically said, 'Glad it's not me,' when they should have immediately identified how they could help her after the stand-up," Moran says.

5. Letting one person lead

A key tenet of agile methods is to develop self-directed teams. A problem with some teams is that one person, often the scrum master, directs the stand-up.

Moran was called in to coach a team that had been practicing  for more than a year. Though it identified itself as an advanced agile team, the scrum master was leading the stand-up. He was not only breaking stand-up protocol by providing a status report on what had been accomplished the day before, but was asking each team member what they were doing that day. They were relying on the scrum master to verify that work.

When questioned about the stand-up's structure, the scrum master told Moran that they'd evolved beyond the three-question format. "I told him that they'd 'evolved' to the point where they'd regressed, because they were relying on the scrum master to direct them as opposed to being a self-directed team."

6. Stating the same daily task on consecutive days

If a developer states the same daily task on consecutive days (another stand-up no-no) the team should take a minute to ask what's holding them up and whether they need help moving through it. If they've got an issue that can't be addressed quickly, other team members can work with them after the stand-up.

"Sometimes people are too polite to call each other out," says Moran. That's a problem when a developer is into the third day of what should be a four-hour task.

Challenging one another is a good thing

Scrum teams should take a page from the Kanban book, agreeing up front to the policy dictating that members talk openly about impediments and work with someone when they're stuck. "Sometimes you just need a different set of eyes to see something you're missing," Moran says.

"It's important that team members challenge each other, but they should challenge the issue, not the person," says Pittman. "There shouldn't be any individual heroes, but a committed group where anyone experiencing a problem feels comfortable asking for help."

What are some other bad things people do during daily stand-up meetings? Add your comment below.

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