Effective Standups

18 May, 2010

I have been experimenting with standups a lot over the last 4 years and I found a good way to get the most from it.
In my experience a good standup only serves one goal. It is to unite every mind in the Team into One Mind so there can be one view on status and one view on focus. Or put otherwise : One commonly understood answer to the questions ‘Where are we now?’ and ‘Where do we want to be tonight?’
If every member of the Team leaves the standup with a clear understanding of where the Team wants to be at the end of the day, then they will make choices during the day that lead towards the actual realization of this goal.
The structure of an effective standup looks like this :

  • Welcome the Team in a happy and energetic way
  • Decide together on the actual status of the project.
  • Decide together on the focus of today.
  • Find a way to achieve this Goal in the most effective way.
  • Send away the Team with a wrap up of the focus of the day and a reminder to have fun.

Do all this from a point of view of the TEAM and avoid talking about individual achievements or goals and you will increase the effectiveness of your Team.
The amount of energy and interaction during the standup represents the quality of the Team. A boring standup will never lead to an inspired working day.
To bring your Team alive, you should bring life into your standups!

To establish this, you should pay attention to 3 main subjects:
1. Questions
First of all, it’s not the purpose of the standup to have everyone answering these questions. The purpouse is to get a clear view on the actual status of the Sprint and on what we should achieve today to be on track for delivering a successful Sprint. So the questions are answered by question, instead of per person.

    The questions to answer are ( in that order )

  • Where are we today ?
  • Where do we want to be tonight?
  • [Optional]Who will do what to achieve this goal?
  • How can we do that more easy ?

After welcoming the Team in a happy and energetic way, the Team answers the first. How this question is answered depends on the maturity of the Team and the type of organization. I’ve seen a number of ways good ways to find out where we are today:

  1. You can make a round and let every pig answer the question ‘What have you achieved yesterday?’ and then wrap it up in one sentence that clearly states the actual status of this morning.
  2. Another way to do this is to run through the Sprint Backlog and make the status of each story visible to the Team ( e.g. by using the different steps in the DoD as a measure) and then have the entire status visible to the Team.
  3. A third way is to give the Team the task to enter the standup with one unanimous answer to this question.

The second question does only makes sense when the first question is answered. To decide on where you want to be tonight requires to know where you’re now. But how to get a clear picture of the desired status at tomorrows standup? Some tips:

  • In fact, what you want to do during this question is take a look at the current status, see the endgoal for the Sprint and then decide on where you want to be one day further.
  • Don’t approach this individually. The question ‘What will you achieve today?’ is definitely not the right question to ask. It will help people to focus on themselves instead of on the Team.
  • Try the question “What stories will be burned tomorrow morning?” Take it story by story, ask the Team who’s working on the story and then ask these people whether it will be burned tonight.
  • Try to set a dot on the burndown as the goal for tomorrow. ( Now we’re here, tomorrow our burndown line should be there). Then ask the question “How can we do that?”

The third question is optional and should only be used as a temporary aid to the Team until they’ve found a way to organize themselves.
I suppose you all have experience with asking each teammember what he will achieve today so not much explanation needed here. If you do feel the Team can benefit from answering this question during the standup, then still respect the idea of answering the questions question by question. So don’t answer the questions person per person by making a round and asking the same questions to every individual in the Team. Find an answer for the first question and then go to the second question.
The reason to avoid this question is that it emphasizes focus on the individual and instead we want to create a focus on the Team result. Keep on reading for more on this idea.
The fourth question asks for ways to do things better. In fact the old question “What’s in your way?” or “Do you have any imediments?” is a very difficult question. Many impediments are no longer seen as an impediment because these roadblocks have been around forever. By asking a very difficult question you cannot expect to get the best result. A question like ‘How can reach our day goal more easily?’ is a question that is far more easy to answer and so there will be a lot more useful input from the Team.
To maximise the improvement cycle, it’s important to find ways to easily discover things that can be improved.
2. Explicit end of the standup with mission statement.
After the questions have been answered the standup should not end in an atmosphere of doubt like ‘can we go now?’ or ‘errrr …. I guess this was it for today’s standup ….’.
The end of the standup is the ideal moment to motivate the Team and to engrave the Focus of today in their minds. So something like

  • OK guys, so the focus of today is to finish the first 2 stories. This means that those who are not directly on the critical path for these 2 stories should drop anything if needed to reach this Goal. Ok ? Good. Let’s go and Have Fun !” or maybe something like
  • That’s it. The focus of today will then be to have first feedback of the PO on the entire GUI. It’s an ambitious goal so let’s no longer wait and start with it. I will check on you at 13.00h to see where we are. Have fun !”
  • Or my favorite one “All right, so, the focus for today is on the board. Don’t forget to do this together and to have FUN doing it !”
  • Over the past few years, I’ve learned that it is a good idea to end each standup with the same phrase. “So, the focus of today is ….”. This empowers people to remember the focus of today and after 2-3 weeks people are so used to work with this focus that they really start to make choices that lead to actual delivery of todays focus.
    It’s also good to remind people to have fun ! Sometimes they forget.
    3. ‘We’ instead of ‘I’
    You should try to avoid paying attention to what individual teammembers will do during the day. In fact I don’t care at all. The only thing that really matters is what the Team will achieve today. Once the goal of the day is clear to the Team, they will organize themselves to get the work done.
    Two main reasons to focus on ‘we’ instead of ‘I’:

    • Personal achievements are not relevant, the Team’s progress at the end of the day is what really matters.
      It’s very hard to predict what everyone will have to do to achieve the goal by the end of the day because the learning from the first 3 hours of work, will influence the rest of the day. What is unpredictable should not be predicted.
    • Performed tasks are not relevant, the achievement of the Focus of the day is the only thing that matters. If people take on a bunch of tasks in the morning their focus of the day will be to finish these tasks. However if people get inspired by a Goal that has been set ( by themselves) they will focus on the Goal and perform whatever task needs to be done to realize the result.

    No results without energy, …., no energy without Focus !

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12 years ago

I liked the tips this piece provides however I think it needs to be scaled down a bit to apply to a Dutch situation. It is a really Americanized attitude towards getting things done. If you’d apply this to a typical Dutch situation you’d probably get a reply like “yeah right! Doe niet zo popi-jopi.”. Personally I would supress the teamleader’s explicit positiviness and just try to enable each team member to more come out of his shell. Given the nature of the average programmer this is already hard enough and I have the gut feeling that instead of explicitly pushing him, gently guiding him lets us reach our goal more effectively.

Geert Bossuyt
12 years ago

Hi Richard,
I can see why this feels Americanized … I never looked at it that way.
The above is based on my experience in Belgian and Dutch companies over de last 4 years.
I have not meant to describe heavy GO-GO-GO session of 15 minutes that pushes everyone to the limit. The idea is to bring a positive energy in the standup that makes people remember 2 things :
1. The focus of today
2. We’re in this together as a Team.
I agree with you that the positiveness should not feel Americanized. It should feel honest ! So how this is achieved, highly depends on the ScrumMaster at hand.

12 years ago

Hi Geert!
Right now we’re doing weekly standups and I do recognize the “team-building” aspect. But it’s not only that. It also gives you an appreciation for your team members. For the problems and issues they’ve run into. Therefore, in our context, it is “together” by getting more insights in the “personal” problems and aspects, which does sound a bit contradictory.
And I wholeheartedly agree with your “it should feel honest”!

Geert Bossuyt
12 years ago

It’s cool to create a sense of ‘team-building’ on weekly standups.
I get your point on the together vs personal contradiction.
As long as you feel every teammber is sincerely interested in every ‘personal’ problem, it’s ok. However this can grow into a situation where a Team is nothing more then a bunch of individuals working on their own problems. A standup then becomes the moment where all individual problems are brought to the Scrummaster at the same time. This kind of situations should be avoided.
You can do this by
– increasing your number of standups
– encouraging the fixing of impediments by the Team itself
– using the questions from this blogpost instead of the standard questions.
Just as a remark :
I’m convinced that the ‘only’ reason why timeboxing is so important is because everyone has to do ‘his’ work and needs some time to focus on that, but after a certain period of time the Team must come back together to learn from each other.

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