Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Standups – take them or leave them

We left ‘em.

Standup meetings are a core practice in Agile methods like Scrum and XP. Each day the team meets briefly to answer 3 questions: What did I get done yesterday? What am I going to do today? What is getting in my way?

Standups offer a quick check on what’s happening, what’s changed, who ‘s working on what, who needs help. The meeting is supposed to be short and sweet, no more than 15 minutes a day. Martin Fowler lists some good reasons to hold standups:

  • Share commitment
  • Communicate status
  • Identify obstacles to be solved
  • Set direction and focus
  • Help to build a team

However, not everyone finds that standups are necessary and some people have started to question the value of standups over time and are looking for substitutes. A number of people have suffered through poorly-run standup meetings. And some people just plain don’t like them.

Our team has been successful following Scrum and XP practices as we transitioned from delivering phased releases (a release every 2-3 months) to 2-3 small releases a month. We looked closely at how other teams worked, spent time learning about incremental and iterative development methods, and took what made sense to us and tried it and adapted it. But one of the Agile practices that we did not take up was standups.

When we introduced the idea of standups to the team a few years ago, we were surprised by the response. The team was roughly split. Some people, especially people who were new to the team, or people who had worked on successful Scrum teams or XP teams before, liked the idea. But other people who had been on the team from the beginning were opposed, some of them strongly opposed. And they had some good reasons:

We were already running an operational business and building and delivering new software at the same time. Team members were helping to support the system, helping with day-to-day operations, and working closely with the business side. Some people were working late and weekends to get changes in or to do after-hours testing, others were working early to help with startup issues or to coordinate with partners, some people were working in different timezones, some people were working at home, others were at the beck and call of integration partners and important clients. It would not be possible to schedule a daily meeting, even a short one, which would work well for everyone on a sustained basis. This is one example (and there many others), where Agile development ideas which work well in the controlled, artificial reality of a development project need to be rethought and adapted to fit day-to-day operational demands and constraints.

Some of the team had their hands full with important changes or problems that had to be taken care of urgently. They met regularly with other team members to work through design issues and reviewed each other’s code. They got help from other team members or managers when they needed it – there was no need to wait for a daily meeting to bring up blockers or get whatever information they needed.

And there were a couple of introverts who hated all meetings and didn’t understand why a meeting that they had to go to everyday and standup at would be any better than any other meeting. They saw it as a half hour wasted out of every day – because they knew that a 15-minute meeting, when you include the time taken to save what you were working on, go to the meeting, standup, get out of the meeting and get back to working productively, would mean at least 30 minutes if not more time every day from what they were doing.

Rather than try to fight with the team to implement a practice that we weren’t sure was really needed, we decided to find other ways to get the same results.

Alternatives to standups

There are other ways to share status within (and outside of) the team. Because we have people working together in different countries and different groups, we rely heavily on our bug tracking system to manage the backlog of work, to schedule and plan work, and to radiate status information. The bug tracking system is used by and shared with everyone: developers, testers, support, business operations, systems engineering, IT, compliance and management. Everything to do with the software and systems operations is tracked here, including new features and bug fixes and security vulnerabilities and problems found in testing, and operational and infrastructural changes, compliance reviews and new clients being onboarded. Using the system’s dashboards and notification feeds everyone can easily tell what is happening and what will be happening and when. The team doesn’t need standups to know what is happening, who is working on what, what the schedule is or what needs to be worked on next.

Managers who need to know what’s going on and who want to make sure that everyone is on track can get all of this through MBWA. And regular one-on-one meetings help reinforce priorities and make sure that everyone gets face time and a chance to ask questions without wasting the rest of the team’s time.

Standups help at the start

I can see that standups are more useful in the early stages of a project, when the team is starting to come together and everyone is working through the design and learning the domain and the technology and feeling out each other, finding out each other’s strengths and quirks.

Without standups, it is harder for new people joining the team to understand what is going on and what’s important, and figure out where they fit in. Pairing up new team members with someone more experienced helps, but if you have a couple or more people joining a team, it makes sense to hold standups for a while at least to help them get up to speed.

Declining value over time

But when people have been working together for a while, standups offer declining value. Once the team has gelled and people know each other and can depend on each other, they don’t need to meet in a room every morning to talk about what they are working on. Like some other practices that are important and useful in the beginning, the team grows up or grows out of them.

And as you move more into maintenance and support work, when people on the team are working on smaller individual changes and fixes and the work tends to be more interrupt-driven, standups are a waste. What one person is working on doesn’t have much if anything to do with what somebody else is doing. They don’t need to, or want to, listen to each other talking about what they did and what they’re going to do, because if it was important they would already know about it anyways.

Stuffed Pigs, Nerf Balls and other Silly Games

One of the things I don’t like about standups is that they are fundamentally paternalistic – you’re treating the team like children, forcing them to get together and stand up in a room every day (they have to stand up because they can’t be trusted to sit down) and making them speak in turn for only a few minutes (but only of course if they are a pig, not a chicken). And on some teams, people go so far as to hand around a stuffed pig or a Nerf ball or follow some other awkward ritual to make sure that people don’t speak out of turn. If this sounds silly and childish, it is. You have a room full of children: team members who can’t ask questions, they can’t solve problems, they have to stand there and follow silly rituals. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year…

Rather than treating adults like little children, why not let people meet when they need to or want to – to solve problems, to review requirements or designs, to respond to incidents (Root Cause Analysis), to plan, and to make sure that people know when requirements or priorities are changing in a significant way.

Would we have had different results if we had implemented standups? Probably. Would the results have been better for the team and for the company? I’m not sure. We found other good ways for the team, and the rest of the company, to track what was going on and what needed to be done next. We’ve had some misunderstandings, and some people did get off track – standups might have helped prevent this. And standups would have helped new people joining the team, to come up to speed. But the rest of the team gelled quickly during our crazy startup days, and built up a high level of trust and openness and shared commitment without standups. Can you build high-performing, collaborative teams without standups? Of course you can.

Standups have a place, especially early on with people who don’t know each other, where everyone is learning and uncertain about what to do and about each other. But don’t do something, or keep doing something if you don’t think that you need to, just because somebody read it in a book or learned about it in a 3 day SCM class. It’s your team, and you can find your own way to succeed.

Reference: Standups – take ‘em or leave ‘em from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

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