The Daily Standup is a Waste of Time

It’s the same daily standup you’ve been attending for years. You show up. Enjoy small talk with your teammates. The facilitator asks how yesterday went with work.

Updates are given. Details about one’s schedule in the past 24 hours. They explaining their plan for the current day. Repeat with the next person on the team until everyone has gone.

Does this meeting feel like it’s worth the time?

I mean, it’s fine for some teams and sucks for others. Why are some ok with it and others not? After thinking about this, I’ve realized:

I don’t care what you did yesterday.

I don’t care about your side project’s meetings. It doesn’t matter how many hours you spent coding. I don’t care if you had a dentist appointment and then made up the time later.

I care about how much progress the team made towards its goals.

So if my priorities for this meeting differ from normal expectations…

Do daily standups even matter?

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What is a Daily Standup?

If you are not familiar with the daily standup, it’s a daily meeting for a team to sync on their project. The meeting lasts for 15 minutes and involves each person answering the following:

  • What did I complete yesterday that contributed to the team?
  • What do I plan to complete today to contribute to the team?
  • What impediments do I see that prevent me or the team from achieving its goals?

Detailed discussions should be avoided during the standup. Instead, topics should be followed up after the meeting. I emphasize “should” because these discussions are hard to avoid in practice.

For the rest of this post, I will be referring to this standup format as the “traditional” format.

The Problems with the Daily Standup’s Format

The problems with the traditional daily standup is a lack of focus and off-topic discussions. When I attend this meeting, I’m thinking:

  • What is my update to prove I should continue to be employed
  • People zone out when a teammate talks about something that doesn’t affect them.
  • It’s my turn to give an update. No one’s listening except the facilitator.
  • We go over time and end when the next team lurks outside the room.

I don’t remember most of the updates I heard in the daily standup. I have to ask follow-up questions to figure out if we’re over-engineering the project. My colleagues then have to repeat the information from the daily standup. The only difference is now I’m listening.

When does this daily standup format work?

I think the traditional daily standup format works fine for small teams. If updates are done within five minutes, then the extra ten can be used for specific topics. These extra topics affect everyone on a small team.

If everyone can summarize the team’s status, then the traditional format is fine!

It goes awry when the team gets larger than seven or so people. Larger teams bring new problems:

  • More people bring extra status updates.
  • More updates mean more information that others won’t care about.
  • The team may be working on multiple projects at once.
  • If the team has customers, ad-hoc work will come up.

Simply put, the traditional daily standup format doesn’t scale.

As a leader, it’s your job to pay attention to when people start checking out. When people aren’t engaged, it’s time to change the format of your daily standup.

A Daily Standup Format that Scales: Walk the Board

I’ve had a lot of success with using the “Walk the Board” format for larger Daily Standups. This format still answers the critical questions of the standup:

  • What was completed yesterday?
  • What is planned for today?
  • What blockers are preventing the team from making progress?

The trick is we stop giving individual updates. Instead, we provide updates about each ticket on the board.

This daily standup format works as follows:

  • Bring up the board every item in progress.
  • Starting in the right-most column, get an update for each ticket in the column.
  • Ask: “What’s needed to move this ticket to the next stage of progress?”
  • Highlight blockers and define what’s needed to unblock work.
  • Move to the next column on the left and get updates for each ticket in that column.
  • Continue until you get to the left-most column.

This format works well for larger teams. Everyone is focused since we’re talking about specific tickets in a clear order. We’re not bouncing around topics based on where everyone is standing. It’s a great way to raise the explicit blockers of a piece of work, such as a lack of automated tests.

You might say, “But John, this MUST take longer than 15 minutes!?”. In which case, you’re wrong.

Walking the board focuses the discussion and prevents side topics. Since you’re talking about specific tickets, the updates are smaller and quicker. The lack of side topics saves a lot of time.

What if the “walk the board” daily standup is too long?

If this format is taking too long for your team, then you’ve exposed new problems.

If there are too many tickets to work through in the daily standup, how can your team commit to less? How you fix this is a topic for another day. In the meantime, I recommend reading the book Agile Project Management with Kanban.

Maybe the problem is the meeting facilitator. They could be letting people talk too long about topics. If this is the case, check out my article on how to facilitate collaborative meetings for guidance.

These problems may not apply to you – every team is unique. Research the issues your team faces. Getting a deep understanding of your team’s problems will make it easier to find the right solution.

The Daily Standup Doesn’t Matter. The time after it does.

After attending daily standups for years, I noticed something special. The meeting itself was fine, but after the meeting…

The team kept talking with each other.

These conversations weren’t small talk. People were solving problems. They gave constructive feedback to their colleagues. Trust was being built.

This behavior made a ton of sense as I thought about it. People were talking with teammates that shared the same context. They weren’t burdened by time pressure or feeling bad for “wasting time” on a topic.

This freedom allowed everyone to talk about the problems they actually cared about.

I realized that the real value of a daily standup isn’t the meeting itself. It’s the time that comes after it.

So let’s stop trying to optimize the daily standup itself. Instead, use it as a catalyst to get our teammates away from their desks. Use the standup to start a conversation, but trust the team to finish it.

Conclusion

After all this, I still think daily standups are a useful tool for teams. We just need to focus on the actual purpose of the meeting.

Yes, we must coordinate as a team. Identify blockers, get questions answered, etc.

But we have to figure out how to make the time effective for the entire team. What works for a team of five may not work for a team of fifteen.

Re-evaluate the meeting’s format as your team goes. I find that walking the board scales well to a larger team, but different formats may better suit your situation.

Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate the number of meetings the team has. Check out my post on the minimum amount of agile meetings I use.

At the end of the day, the daily standup is not about status updates. It’s about getting smart people together to collaborate and solve hard problems.

What do you think about the Daily Standup?

We’ve all encountered some form of the daily standup. What formats have worked well in your experience?

If you’re on a remote team, how does your team use the daily standup?

Let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Further Reading

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