Better Stand-Ups for Agile Teams

If your team is new to sprints or is trying to adopt more agile practices, then you may have started doing various ceremonies: daily stand-ups, sprint retrospective, grooming, etc.

For new teams, sometimes the daily stand-ups seem repetitive, boring, or plain useless.

Boring, Painful Stand-Ups

Normally teams do some baseline questions that everyone goes around in a circle and answers:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What are you doing today?
  3. Do you have any blockers?

While the questions are important, the goal is to make sure the team is collaborative and involved. It’s easy to just go around and succinctly say: “I was working on billing yesterday, and I’m going to work on billing today. No blockers.”

But, was that useful for anyone?

The answer doesn’t help much. It doesn’t indicate any progress. What part of billing was being worked on? Is there something specific that is taking a long time?

Visualize the Sprint

In one team I worked on, we tackled this problem by making sure that people would mention specific tickets they were working on. A front-end engineer can’t just say “Billing”, they have to point out which billing tickets they were working on on the kanban board that we displayed on a screen.

Making sure the team called out the exact tickets they were working on helped with a few things:

  • The team knew what work was in-progress.
  • They could immediately point out interdependencies now that it was visualized.
  • The team could clearly notice very early into a sprint of they had under-estimated the amount of work that needed to be done in a ticket.

Of course, not everything maps directly to a ticket, but it does help the team stay focused and engaged by visualizing the tickets developers are talking about.

Put the kanban board or the sprint’s tickets up on a display for everyone to see and discuss.

Be Specific AND Succinct

If you are displaying the sprint’s tickets on a display for the team to see, it’s much easier to keep everyone on track. While displaying the tickets can help developers that are normally too brief in their standup, you still may need to reign in developers that are extremely detailed and take up multiple minutes.

Make sure someone is running the stand-up and guides the team to either be more specific or be more succinct with their stand-up.

Catch Problems Early

When teams start doing sprints, there is a tendency to wait until AFTER the sprint ends during the retrospective to point out problems.

As an example, there was a team that a friend of mine was working in that started to do more rigorous sprints. The team hadn’t pointed tickets before and the backlog was not properly prioritized. The morale of the team started dropping as they realized they were not delivering tickets.

Two weeks is a long time for a team to be discouraged with their sprint. Waiting for the retrospective to identify and solve problems in the sprint ends up just hurting morale. But a lot of the problems they were having weren’t blockers — the problems were because of the size of tickets, the lack of prioritization, and the amount of work the team would bring into a sprint.

My friend decided to start having the team answer a new question during stand-ups:

Have the team answer: How are you feeling about the sprint so far?

This question helped bring up problems that weren’t necessarily blockers. It gave each developer the opportunity to point out if a ticket had grown in size because of unforeseen requirements. Or if the team didn’t know the prioritization of tickets because they clearly weren’t going to finish all of the tickets in the sprint.

Better Stand-Ups

In short, the key to better stand-ups is to make sure everyone feels involved. The team should consider stand-ups a great time to bring up problems and let the team know what they are working on and why.

If you find that your team is unengaged with the stand-up, try different techniques to encourage people to focus.

The daily stand-up should be an opportunity for everyone to participant and have their voice heard. Consider it a forum to see if you need to follow up with anyone on any tickets, blockers, or problems after the stand-up.

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