Sam Phillips Startups, Technology, Agile.

Focus daily standups on value, not activity or individuals November 18, 2012

The daily standup (or *daily scrum*) is the bedrock of an agile process - and it should be kept enjoyable and useful, because that's the only way that it'll definitely continue to happen. A frequent complaint about this meeting, which erodes from its enjoyability and its utility, is a simple one - that it simply takes too long.

There are many reasons why the meeting goes on. It's important that a team leaves totally in sync with one another - and sometimes this can take more than a few minutes, especially if a ad-hoc planning session emerges.

In many cases, I believe that the standard Scrum-style format of this meeting lays an unhelpful foundation from which many bad habits are often built. I therefore advocate moving teams away from this activity- and individual-focused meeting towards a towards a value-based or "right-to-left" standup.

The focus on activity and individuals

The standard, Scrum-style standup is well known - standing around your card wall, each member of the team answers the following three questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What will I do today?
  3. Is there anything standing in my way?

These questions are quickly learnt and are a good first step when adopting agile - they encourage clarity, commitment to one another and give an opportunity to state publicly if you are blocked (and are often the prompt for you to work out that you're blocked!).

On a large agile team of ~7 people, though, going through these questions can start to take a while, and the whole meeting can take 20 minutes or more. I believe this is because the focus on activity creates a desire and often an necessity to talk not about your contribution to the team goal and the value you have delivered, but instead to ensure that you justify your previous day's work. Simply put, people often seem to be spending time proving that they "worked very hard" yesterday, and will work similarly hard today.

The impact of this is a meeting with content focused on individual achievements, rather than an assessment of the state of projects and a synchronisation of team members. If you're trying to justify yourself, being brief is the last thing on your mind - talking for longer is better.

When you look around other team members in this sort of meeting, you will find them staring at the floor and zoned out, or if they have yet to speak, compiling their own list of achievements to shout about. It's boring, it wastes time and the team leaves the meeting not much wiser than when they arrived.

A focus on value - the "right-to-left" standup

A value-based standup puts the focus of the standup meeting where it belongs - on the value that the work delivers.

The format is similar but different - the team still stands around their card wall, but they do not go through each individual and discuss their activity. Instead, a facilitator goes through each card on the wall, starting from the right-most card (the one that is nearest to being complete and thus providing business value), and simply asks: ***what is the next step required to move this card further right, and who is doing it?***

Sometimes the answer is that the task is blocked, and if this block is immutable, that's fine - move on to the next most valuable card (the next most right-most card) and repeat the process.

Because the topic of conversation is always the work, each team member is engaged throughout the meeting, rather than only during the part where they are speaking, and the focus at all times is how the team will realise the most value today. The meeting is information-rich and fast-paced - meaning it's not only shorter but also more enjoyable, which was the whole point.

Team members still make a personal commitment to each other about the work they will do today (one of the best parts of the activity-based standup), and there is no requirement that a manager or agile coach is always the facilitator, meaning the team can be self-organised and different team members are easily empowered to own the process. And of course, there's something to be said for the variety of different people running the meeting - anything to keep it interesting!

Start small

I've successfully introduced this format to a number of teams, but it's always been after at least a month or two of following the activity-based standup structure first. If your team's standup is currently non-existent or is more of a nascent activity-based model, I'd suggest implementing activity-based standups first and then moving onto value-based soon after.