More Effective Standups

Many engineers dislike standups. They often consider standups a waste of time and want to eliminate them. That is often due to how the standups are run. Usually, everyone goes around answering the following questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What am I doing today?
  3. What am I blocked on?

The problem is that these questions often feel like a daily status report and don’t give the engineers any real value. The way they see it is if they are working together on something, then they’re already talking and know what the other engineers are doing. Hearing it again in standup isn’t useful. However, if they aren’t working together on something, then it is useless information that doesn’t help.

Thankfully, we have a fantastic tool at our disposal to see what is being worked, by who, and what state that work is at: Kanban boards. A well-designed Kanban board should have a way to make it clear what phase work is at without having to go ask the engineer.

The real value of standups is that it provides a chance for the team to collaborate and work through problems, not get a status update.

So instead of asking the standard questions, my team has switched to asking these questions:

  1. What work is blocked? Notice the emphasis is on the work and not on the person. If anything is blocked this is an opportunity to escalate it and chat about it as a team.
  2. What work is at risk of becoming blocked? Are there other priorities that are taking us away from completing something? Was there an unknown dependency?
  3. Is there work being done that isn’t on the board? Was there unplanned work that needed to be done immediately that we didn’t account for? Let’s capture it by creating a ticket and getting it on the board.
  4. Are there any other important updates, call-outs, or risks people want to mention? Is there anything else that didn’t come up in standup that people want to mention?

These questions are from the book Making Work Visible by Dominica DeGrandis.

The great thing about these questions is they focus the team is on solving problems and not getting status updates. It means we quickly dive into solving problems in standup rather than waiting on everyone’s updates. And if things are going well, then standup can be super short and everyone can get back to work.

Experiment with your team’s standups. Is the current format really helping the team solve problems or has it become a routine that has lost its value? Teams are always changing, so what worked last year might no longer be working.