The work-centric standup

Photo by Paper Textures on Unsplash

Have you heard of zombie standup? If not, there’s a good chance you’ve been part of one at some point. Zombie standup is just what it sounds like – a lifeless meeting where people go around a room and talk about what they are working on but nothing much useful happens as a result.

When done well, standups are a highly effective tool to keep work progressing in the right direction. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience with a different standup format than the one most commonly used. A format I think does a much better job of accomplishing the intended goal of standups in the first place.

The people-centric standup

The most common standup format is the people-centric standup. You go around the room and ask each person to give an update. Each person typically answers 3 questions:

    • what did you do yesterday?
    • what are you going to do today?
    • do you have any obstacles?

Problems with the people-centric standup

The problem with people-centric standups is where the emphasis is – on people rather than on work. A people-focus creates the tendency to be time and task-oriented. How has the person been spending their time? What tasks have they been doing? This emphasizes activity. But remember: activity != progress.

People-centric standups have other problems too:

    • They tend to be low engagement. Team members tune out each other’s updates because everybody is just waiting for their turn to speak.
    • They miss progression problems on projects. Standup is an invaluable time to catch problems early and avoid incurring larger delays. For example, having a critical path ticket sit in code review too long.
    • Longer than they need to be. Going around the room ensures everybody speaks every meeting, but this isn’t always necessary or important. What’s important is that the work is progressing. It’s OK if someone doesn’t have an update every meeting. 1

The work-centric standup

I was introduced to a different standup format a few years ago by A.J. Vittorio, an agile coach colleague of mine. I really like it. I’ve been using it on my teams ever since and I’ve never looked back. It’s a work-centric standup.

It’s short. It’s efficient. And it works!

My team’s Kanban board with work stages: To Do -> In Progress -> Ready for Review -> In Review -> Ready to Deploy -> Done

Here’s how we do it:

    • We start with the Done column on the far right; We look at which tickets have been completed in the last day and give ourselves a pat on the back. Small wins are important!
    • We then work our way backwards through the Kanban board, column-by-column, from Ready to Deploy to In Progress.
    • For each ticket, the person who is currently working on it speaks to it. This can be a different person for different stages of the ticket. For example, when in the In Review stage, the code reviewer will speak to the ticket.
    • Finally, we have a parking lot for any questions or discussions that came up during the standup, or anything anyone wants to bring up. There’s usually around 5 minutes left for this.

We are consistently able to do standup in 15 minutes – sometimes even less time. Because we go column-by-column, we easily notice if one work stage is being overloaded. We also spot work that is stalling because we keep talking about it over and over again, even if no-one is actively working on it. This is great!

We frequently hit on actual problems during standup and walk out with plans to deal with them. For example, if a ticket is stuck for some reason and isn’t progressing, other team members can jump in and offer suggestions to help move it along. It’s not that this can’t happen in a people-centric standup, I just find that it’s less likely.

What about my update!?

One concern people have with this format is that not everyone gives an update every single meeting, and that makes some people uneasy. While this does happen from time to time, I find it’s uncommon. But you should also ask yourself: does it really matter? Remember it’s ultimately about outcomes and results, not activity tracking.

If you find it does happen often, it could be an indication of an actual problem, or may reveal work that is flying under the radar. This is a good time to create a ticket to encapsulate that work or have a discussion about whether it is in fact a priority.

Other Standup tips

Good standup hygiene is important. I don’t like to skip standup on some days or make it asynchronous in the team’s slack channel. I find standup works best when it’s consistently done the same way every day. I know teams that have “no meeting” days, and that includes standup. I’m not a fan of this. If the standup is really short and work-focused, it shouldn’t be a big deal to do every day. It’s not surprising people want to skip ineffective standups. It probably reflects the actual value they are getting out of the meeting.

Conclusion

Work-centric standups have worked really well on my teams. It all comes down to where the emphasis is. Keeping things work focused tends to concentrate more on outcomes and elevates the work. The purpose of standup is to keep things moving. It’s to swarm on problems. It’s not to make sure everyone is keeping busy.

Do you have another approach to standup you think works really well? I would love to hear about it. Leave a comment!


Thanks to A.J. Vittorio for reviewing a draft of this post

[1]: A good example is someone being oncall and dealing with pages or answering support questions. This doesn’t need to be discussed in standup – you should have a separate meeting for oncall stuff – I recommend a regular operational meeting.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.