The letter A styled as Alchemists logo. lchemists Syndication Icon

Putin's War on Ukraine - Watch President Zelenskyy's speech and help Ukraine fight against the senseless cruelty of a dictator!

Published July 1, 2022 Updated July 1, 2022
Cover
Standups

Standups — or status updates — as mentioned earlier in my meetings article, are one of many meetings best avoided. They are a problem masquerading as a solution.

My original meetings article only scratches the surface on standups and so this article will delve deeper. In fact, standup meetings have become such a bad practice that they are now a major indicator of a dysfunctional team because they reek of Motivation 2.0.0 (carrot and stick) leadership as originally explained in Drive by Dan Pink.

Instead of standups, what you’d ideally want to see is an empowered team where velocity burns from within and rises up from the team rather than being enforced from on high. This velocity is made visible through asynchronous communication where knowledge is shared transparently, is searchable, and is readily available to colleagues new and old. You don’t need industrial era time cards or checkins to know if people are doing their job or not. You only need your team constantly communicating, sharing, helping, and holding each other accountable through deliverables.

To understand this further, the rest of this article will explain why abolishing standups is good for you and your team.

Background

For the fortunate few who’ve never had to experience a standup, here is a brief list of what a typical standup looks like:

  • Held at the start of the day.

  • Everyone stands in a circle and posts short updates to the team on the status of their work.

  • Timeboxed to 5 to 15 minutes for the entire group.

  • Serves as a roll call.

The idea is that everyone on the team gets a rough status update on where things are and direction on how to start their day especially if there is potential for collaboration and/or breakout discussions. Even when working from an office was a requirement, this wasn’t always fruitful because discussions could meander and little might be captured if no notes are taken. Those who weren’t privy to the discussion missed out and good luck trying to recall a past discussion or track down the people originally involved.

In today’s world, sadly, standups are likely to continue to exist but we can do much better. First, we need to study standup formats in order to focus more light on the problem.

Formats

Various standup formats exists which are generally in a Scrum or Kanban style and they might look like the following when spoken (in person) or written (remote):

A

  • Previous: What you worked on the day before.

  • Next: What you plan to work on today.

  • Blockers: Any hurdles that might impede your work or need help on from others.

ℹ️ If I’m forced to attend a standup, this is my preferred format because it doesn’t matter what day of the week since it’s relative to when you last attended standup. You were either doing something previously to the weekend, holiday, vacation, or sick leave and it doesn’t matter if that day was yesterday, three days ago, or a couple of weeks ago. From there you have next actions you want to tackle and then, finally, any blockers you might be concerned about.

B

  • Yesterday: What you worked on the day before.

  • Today: What you plan to work on today.

  • Blockers: Any hurdles that might impede your work or need help on from others.

ℹ️ This is a similar structure to the earlier format but is now specific to the day you post this information. This means if you present on a Monday, then yesterday makes no sense. You have to say Friday instead.

C

  • Progress: Describe what has been completed and where you are at with things.

  • Obstacles: Any issues that might be limiting your progress.

ℹ️ The wording being used here is similar in nature. The main difference is that your progress report is a combination of previous and next work. Ultimately, the same information is conveyed but condensed, verbally/visually.

Examples

With the above formats in mind, let’s elaborate by looking at some examples. Using Format A, here a few of examples of what I’ve seen over the years with notes on each:

A - Informative, Educational, and Joyful

  • Previous

    • Built initial scaffolding of our Ruby gem (link) which will be a client for accessing our API (link).

    • Wired up CI (link) to build this gem for which you can see results here (link).

    • Added scripts (link) for automatic deployment of the gem so all you have to do is update the gem version and everything will be taken care of for you.

  • Next

    • With the gem skeleton in place, I’ll move on to working on building out REST (link) support for our Users API (link).

    • I’ll also be blending a bit of functional and object oriented programming which will heavily leverage monads (link) to pulls this off. If you need a refresher, here’s my presentation (link) I gave to the team earlier.

  • Blockers

    • None.

ℹ️ First and foremost, you’ve got a good communicator on your team so make sure to encourage this speaking/writing style. You’ll also notice the information is concise while also sharing what made the work enjoyable in terms of additional links, learnings, and ways to level up the team. A good engineer is a good teacher and communicator who can summarize while also allowing people to dig deeper.

B - No Insight, All Laundry

  • Previous

    • Attended standup.

    • Paired with Bob to fix flakey CI builds.

    • Attended retro with team.

  • Next

    • Attend standup.

    • Pick up next issue in tracker.

    • 1:1 with Jill.

  • Blockers

    • None.

ℹ️ Standups are not a laundry list of things you did during the day. Standups are meant for highlighting the most interesting things from your day worth sharing. Standups are about collaboration and finding ways to delight and provide information that might be of value to your colleagues. Sadly, none of the above information is useful since it could be obtained from the team calendar. Even worse, some of the items listed involved the whole team which is stating the obvious anyway.

C - Joyless Robot

  • Previous

    • Finished Issue 1234

    • Started Issue 1222.

    • Paired on Issue 1250.

  • Next

    • Continue on Issue 1222.

    • Pick up Issue 1270.

  • Blockers

    • Blocked by Issue 1300.

ℹ️ This is one of the worst forms of communication because of the robotic — and redundant — nature of the information being shared. You also can clearly see this individual can’t be bothered to share any insights since anyone on the team can see what you are working on by looking at the issue tracker directly. In fact, some or all members of your team, might have seen the notifications or reviewed the code already.

Advantages

So what are the advantages of standups? Well, there are none. Seriously.

Don’t let any of the above examples fool you into believing there might be positive aspects to having standups. I explain further in the Disadvantages section below.

Disadvantages

There are many disadvantages and to understand each requires breaking them down by two categories: synchronous and asynchronous standups. We’ll start with the former.

Synchronous

A synchronous standup means you are in person (or remote) while gathered together during the same day and moment in time regardless of where you are located in the world. This leads to the following disadvantages:

  • Time: Requires the same time and place to attend a standup which inherently limits any flexibility with how colleagues manage their life in terms of dealing with a doctor’s appointment, taking kids to school, working out, and so forth. As teams grow in size, finding a time that works for everyone becomes increasing rare as well.

  • Ephemeral: Information shared in standups is always fleeting and of the moment so if you’re not present, you completely miss out only to learn later when it’s too late. This causes a lot of unnecessary FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) where people will bend over backwards to make these meetings (even when on vacation!) This is unnecessary, unhealthy, and sows the seeds of a toxic culture.

  • Exclusion: When working in mixed teams (local and remote), what invariably happens — and this is not exclusive to standups — is the local team will have more side discussions where decisions are made to the detriment of those working remote. This happens unintentionally because the remote folks were not there to participate nor was any of the discussion written down or shared afterwards.

  • Unsearchable: Since none of this information is written down, there is no way to go back in time and recall what people might have said. What makes collaboration with others so valuable is being able to write down and share knowledge so both new and old colleagues alike have a way to retain the long tail of decisions made over time.

Asynchronous

An asynchronous standup means people are writing down and sharing information via group chat, a wiki, or some other form of digital communication. This definitely solves many of the disadvantages synchronous standups have but introduces one major question: Why do it at all!?!

With everyone being remote, you need to ask yourself why you are forcing people to write standup notes when everything is happening asynchronously already? The answer is: you don’t. Standups are additional overhead to information you already have via:

  • Group chat

  • Git commits

  • Code reviews

  • Issue tracker

  • Wiki

  • Screenshares

  • Architecture Design Requests (ADRs)

  • …​etc…​

Granted, you have all of this information at your finger tips when working synchronously/asynchronously but it becomes even more of a super power when the entire team is remote. Now people have access to knowledge that is constantly written down, shared, and searchable. Whether you’ve been on the team for a couple of days or several years, the same information is transparent and freely available to everyone.

Reflections

With all of the above in mind — and before I wrap up — let’s take a step back to reflect by being honest with ourselves. I want you to consider the following:

  • Why is it that only engineers are forced to give status updates and never leadership, sales, accounting, etc?

  • How often have you forgotten what the third person, fourth, or even the entire team said because you were too busy formulating what to say in your mind?

  • How often have people forgotten what you said even though you shared valuable information but people ran into the exact issues you brought that same day or maybe a couple of days later regardless?

  • How often has someone gone completely off the rails on their own diatribe causing the meeting to run over with everyone wishing the person would get to the point?

  • How often have people been missing from standup due to justified or unjustified reasons but the details you communicated were for that missing person?

  • How often have you been part of a team that isn’t a team at all but labeled as such because management wanted a nice way to group a bunch of people together for organization chart purposes but you could care less about what most people are working on because it has no impact on you?

Now consider the solution.

Solution

Again, the solution is simple — even anticlimactic — which is to abolish standups so you can have one less mandatory meeting during the day. That’s not only one less meeting per day but also a reduction (roughly) in 5 meetings per week, 20 per month, and 240 per year!

The jelling, bonding, and building of trust due to this new found freedom is what makes teams truly great. Even better, you can empower your team further by:

  • Hiring writers, deep thinkers, and intrinsically motivated talent. Then trust in your team to do what’s right while holding each other accountable by their actions and deliverables.

  • Leaning in on asynchronous communication. Write everything down. Share freely.

  • Allowing your team to live and work how best makes them the most productive. The less meetings they have in a day means the more time focused on deep and meaningful work. Plus, it feels good to know your team has complete autonomy to do their best work.

Enjoy the time you’ve gotten back and use it wisely to share, teach, and empower others to do great work through asynchronous and written collaboration. You don’t need another meeting to paper over the source of dysfunction. Solve the root cause, heal your team, and then get back to building great products/services together. 🙇🏻‍♂️