AoAD2 Practice: Stand-Up Meetings

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Stand-Up Meetings

Audience
Whole Team

We coordinate to complete our work.

I have a special antipathy for status meetings. You know the type: a manager reads a list of tasks and asks about each one in turn. They seem to last forever, although my part is usually only five minutes. I learn something new in perhaps ten of the other minutes. The remaining 45 minutes are pure waste.

Ally
Informative Workspace

Organizations have a good reason for holding status meetings. People need to know what’s going on. But Agile teams have a more effective mechanism: informative workspaces and the daily stand-up meeting.

How to Hold the Daily Stand-Up

Ally
Task Planning

A daily stand-up meeting is very simple. At a pre-set time every day, the whole team holds a brief, five-to-ten minute meeting. In-person teams gather around their task tracking board. Remote teams meet by video and log in to the virtual task board.

Stand-ups are a coordination meeting, not a status meeting.

Stand-ups are a coordination meeting, not a status meeting. If you need status, you just look at the task planning board. But because the team shares ownership and works together to finish stories (see “Key Idea: Collective Ownership”), they need a way to coordinate their work. That’s what the stand-up meeting is for. It’s a way for the team to sync up so they can continue coordinating on an ad-hoc basis throughout the day.

One challenge with stand-ups is that they interrupt the team’s work. This is a particular problem for morning stand-ups; because team members know the meeting will be an interruption, they sometimes just waste time waiting for the stand-up to start. You can reduce this problem by moving the stand-up to later in the day, such as just before lunch.

The most effective approach I’ve seen for stand-ups is to “walk the board.” It has four parts:

1. Walk the board

The stand-up starts with team members going through the stories on the task board one-by-one, starting with the story that’s closest to completion. For each story, the people who worked on that story describe what’s changed and what’s left to be done, as well as any new information that the team needs to know.

For example: (Pointing at board) “I finished this task with Genna.” (Bobbi speaks up.) “And Na and I finished that task, so this story is ready for final review. I told Rodney, and he said he wants to be the one to review it, but he had something urgent come up. He should be back in the office this afternoon. We should be able to mark this story green today, assuming no surprises.”

Although team members should ask for help and hold impromptu collaboration sessions as needed, throughout the day, this is a good time for less-urgent coordination. Some examples:

  • Someone who wants help: “I’m confused about our front-end CSS testing. Can somebody walk me through it after the stand-up?”

  • Somebody with new information: “Lucila and I tried the new TaskManager library yesterday and it worked really well. Take a look the next time you’re dealing with concurrency.”

  • Somebody who needs a collaboration session: “We have some new stories that need to be sized—can we have a quick planning game after lunch?”

In the beginning, while people are still getting used to the stand-up, you may need someone to facilitate the meeting. It’s best to rotate the role, so the team can share leadership. The facilitator should be careful not to dominate the meeting; their role is just to point to each story and prompt the team to speak up.

2. Focus on completion

After walking the board, take a moment to focus the team on what’s needed to complete their work, including blockers that aren’t getting resolved. Teams using iterations should take this opportunity to check on their iteration commitment. Like this: “We have two days left, so we’re 60% of the way through the iteration. It looks like we’ve got more than 60% of the tasks done, but only one of our stories is marked complete, so we should focus on closing out stories today.”

3. Choose tasks

Finally, everyone decides what they’re going to work on next. This is a conversation, not a unilateral decision: “Given what Na said about finishing off stories, it looks like this task should be high on our list. Anybody want to work on this with me?” (Na volunteers and takes the card off the board.) “Also, this afternoon, I’ll check in with Rodney about reviewing that other story.”

Similarly, if someone chooses a task that you have information about, be sure to mention it: “When you start working on that task, talk to me or Seymour. We made some changes to our fetch wrapper that you should be aware of.”

4. Take detailed conversations offline

After everyone’s clear on how the team’s going to make progress, the meeting is over. It should only take a few minutes. If anyone needs to have a more in-depth conversation about a topic, they can mention it during the stand-up, then whoever’s interested can “take it offline” by having the discussion after the stand-up ends.

Be Brief

The purpose of the stand-up meeting is to briefly coordinate the whole team. It’s not meant to give a complete inventory of everything that’s happened. The primary virtue of the stand-up meeting is brevity. That’s why in-person teams stand: their tired feet remind them to keep the meeting short.

Each story (or person, if you’re using old-school stand-ups—see the “Old-School Stand-Ups” sidebar) usually only needs a few sentences. Thirty to sixty seconds each is usually enough. Here are some more examples:

  • A programmer: “Yesterday, Dina and I finished this task (points at board). We ran into some trouble with the tests, so we refactored the service abstraction. It should make that task (points) easier too. Let one of us know if you’d like us to go over the changes with you.”

  • A product manager: “I just got back from the trade show, and I got some great feedback on the user interface and where we’re going with the product. It’s going to mean some changes to the visual plan. I’ll be working on that today and anybody who wants to know more is welcome to join.”

  • A domain expert: “Cynthia asked me about the financial rules for this story yesterday. I’ve since talked it over with Tatum and it turns out there’s more to it than I thought. I added this new task here to update the examples, and I’d like to work with a programmer or tester on that to make sure we cover all the bases.”

The stand-up meeting should only take about five minutes, or ten at most.

Most days, the stand-up meeting should only take about five minutes, or ten at most. If it consistently takes more than ten minutes, something is wrong. Some common reasons for slow stand-ups include:

  • Using an electronic planning tool rather than cards and a whiteboard (or virtual equivalent).

  • Updating the task board during the stand-up rather than throughout the day.

  • Saving conversations and collaboration for the stand-up rather than holding them throughout the day.

  • Holding detailed discussions during the stand-up rather than taking them offline.

  • Holding the stand-up in a meeting room rather than in your team room.

  • Waiting for people to arrive rather than starting on time.

If none of these apply, ask a mentor for help.

Questions

Can people outside the team attend the stand-up?

Allies
Stakeholder Demos
Roadmaps

Yes, but keep in mind that the stand-up is owned by the team and conducted for the team’s benefit. If the outside people are detracting from the meeting, or if team members feel uncomfortable speaking up with them present, they need to stop attending. Team members with political savvy are probably the best choice to carry that message. You can use stakeholder demos and roadmaps to keep those attendees informed instead.

In a multi-team environment, it’s sometimes helpful for teams that work closely together to send people to each others’ stand-ups. In that case, work together to decide how to allow people to attend and contribute in a way that isn’t disruptive.

Participants are being too brief. What should we do?

Sometimes, particularly with old-school stand-ups, participants will devolve into no-content statements such as “same as yesterday” or “nothing new.” If this happens a lot, gently remind participants to go into a bit more detail.

What if somebody is late to the stand-up?

If someone’s late, start without them.

Start without them. Stand-ups are only a few minutes long, so you could be done by the time they get there. They can ask someone to fill them in if they need to. Starting on time will help establish a culture of arriving on time.

Do we still need a daily stand-up if we use mob programming?

Ally
Mob Programming

Teams using mob programming coordinate constantly, so they don’t technically need a stand-up meeting. But it’s still useful to take a moment every day to review progress and think about next steps. For teams using mobbing, that might happen naturally. If it doesn’t, holding an explicit stand-up could help.

Prerequisites

Don’t let the daily stand-up stifle communication. Some teams find themselves waiting for the stand-up rather than talking to someone when they need to. If you find this happening, eliminating the stand-up for a while may actually improve communication.

Beware of leaders who dominate the stand-up. As reviewer Jonathan Clarke so aptly put it, the ideal facilitator is “a charismatic but impatient colleague who will hurry and curtail speakers.” The team—and the stand-up—is a gathering of peers. No one person should dominate.

Indicators

When you conduct daily stand-up meetings well:

  • The team coordinates their work and makes steady progress toward completing their task plan.

  • The team is aware of when a task or story is stalled and takes action to un-block it.

  • Team members are aware of what others are working on and how it influences their work.

Alternatives and Experiments

Coordination, not status, is the underlying idea of the stand-up.

Coordination, not status, is the underlying idea of the stand-up. Teams new to Agile often have trouble with this; to them, the stand-up looks like a shorter, more frequent status meeting, but that’s missing the point.

Be careful about adding formality to the stand-up. People often experiment with adding structure—templates, or lists of questions to answer—but that structure tends to decrease collaboration rather than increase it. Instead, look for ways to improve the team’s ability to collectively own their work.

One team I worked with got so effective at walking the board they started holding very short stand-ups multiple times per day. Rather than scheduling a specific time for their stand-up, they would just get together whenever they finished their tasks. In just 30-60 seconds, they’d coordinate what to work on next and grab tasks off the board.

Further Reading

“It’s Not Just Standing Up: Patterns for Daily Standup Meetings” [Yip 2016] is a nice source of ideas for experimenting with stand-up meetings.

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