Stopping People From Switching Off During Standups

EnergyI sometimes find that as people work together in a team for a long period of time they tend to start attending stand-ups on autopilot. Instead of being a laser focused status update for everyone regarding what is going on in the team, it becomes part of your daily routine BEFORE the real work starts (i.e. morning coffee, stadup, check e-mail, then the REAL work starts). People stop engaging, they’re not fully there and as a consequence the standup looses part of it’s value as people are simply waiting for it to be over. When you notice this happening in your team, it is time to do something different, change the format, change the location, change the time, the point is to find some creative way to snap people out of their groove and get them actively listening and participating in the standup.

The Traditional Standup

The traditional standup is when each member of the team in turn answers the 3 questions while everyone else listens.

  • What have they been doing since the previous standup?
  • What will they be doing before the next one?
  • Is there anything impeding them in their work?

While those questions are great, they do nothing to get people engaged and snap their mind to attention. If this is the format the team has been using for a while it may be partly responsible for putting everyone to sleep (this is the mind’s natural response to routine). This doesn’t mean we need to abandon the traditional standup format, but we do need to do something to liven things up a little. Here are some things that I would suggest.

  1. If you don’t already use it, try getting a speaking token. Rather than going around the room, throw a ball to each other, whoever has the ball – speaks. People need to focus in case they are next to get the ball, so the mind becomes more active as a result. This is good, but can quickly become routine as well, especially if you allow people to call for the token rather than getting the previous speaker to pick the next one.
  2. Introduce ‘homework’. I don’t mean anything fancy, but something like starting every standup with a joke is another idea. Every day a different person has to tell a joke to start the standup. It forces people to think about the standup outside the standup itself (they need to prepare a joke after all). The joke also snaps everyone else’s mind out of their groove and gets them listening, you will be able to complete the standup before this effect wears off. As a side-effect it also promotes team bonding.
  3. Get peoples minds working by introducing a random twist into the standup order every day. For example, one day ask the people to talk in alphabetical order by last name, they will need to work this out and are engaged as a result. Next day get them to do it by height. Next might be in order of time of arrival at work etc. The point is to not let people coast on autopilot and get their minds active.
  4. Lastly as I mentioned previously, who says the standup has to be in the same place, or even at the same time all the time. You can, for example, decide on a different standup time or place at the start of every iteration. One iteration is not long enough to get people into a routine. Try having a standup to end the day, rather than to start one, or maybe right before lunch, nobody said it HAD to be in the morning (of course changing standup time and place every day is not a good idea for obvious reasons).

Of course you don’t need to follow the traditional format at all if you find that you get little value from it or if people are simply bored with it.

Doing It Another Way (Story Focused Standups)

One of the different ways to have standups that has been suggested was to make them story focused rather than people focused (see this post by Dave Nicolette and this infoq post). Here, rather than each person reporting on what they did, will do etc. The team gathers around the task board and examines each of the cards that are in play at the moment. Dave calls this “walking the board”. One of the ways to do this is to designate a ‘champion’ for each card. It would be their job to report on the progress of that card while it is in play. Of course you could also just try and make this organic where anyone who has something of relevance to say about the card just pipes in. The danger to guard against here is lack of focus (trying to solve the issues then and there), remember that it is still a standup, so keep it short and to the point. Regardless of how you do it; it is certainly a different way to have your daily standup which can revitalize the experience and up the level of engagement if you find that your team is lacking energy during your daily standup.

Do you know of/use other ways to hold a standup that are different from the traditional approach? Or maybe you have more tips to make a traditional standup more fun. If you do, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Image by tskdesign

  • I enjoyed the Skork :) Some nice recommendations.

    A comment or two about the “walking the board” approach to standups- just be careful that you don’t miss exposing information about things that aren’t on the story board (which tend to be obstacles). When we focus on the stories and not the people, it may be easier to forget to talk about things that were not related to those stories, and easier for the meeting to simply become story/task status.

    I think that your comments about keeping the stand up interesting and adding an element of “focusing the backlog” perhaps to guide team members to provide context for their updates in terms of story completion will help solve the problem, rather than changing the standup approach itself. Another good article on effective standups by Jason Yip:

    • You’re right if you decide to walk the board, you need to keep an extra level of vigilance .
      You certainly don’t need to change the approach if you don’t want to, but there are situations where the walking the board approach actually works better.

  • While there are some nice suggestions, there is one that I take issue with:
    “who says the standup has to be in the same place, or even at the same time all the time”
    I think a lot of that has to do with the size of the organization and the stakeholders involved. In scrum the daily scrum meeting is not only for the team to sync up but to allow other interested stakeholders to get synced up as well. If the time and place changes frequently, they may not be able to attend or will forget. While the daily scrum is primarily for the team, the transparency provided is very important as well.

    I do think it’s important to talk about your stand up meetings every once in a while to ensure that they are being effective and you’ve offered some good suggestions on how to improve. Thanks!

    • You’re right in a situation where your standup has a lot of chickens (as opposed to pigs), then it may be somewhat more difficult to move the standup around. It is still possible, (after all the standup is primarily for the developers and you wouldn’t dream of moving a standup time if a chicken couldn’t come along), just needs more planning since it can be a hard sell sometimes when everyone has gotten used to things.

  • Nice ideas in this post. I like the idea of assigning a joke teller for each meeting. One variant could be that a person is chosen at random and all team members should be prepared with a good joke in case it it their turn.

    For my team I insisted we meet in a different hallway each time. No meeting rooms, no chairs, different person kicks off the meeting.

    • I personally am all for that, but like one of the comments above said, if you have a lot of chickens coming along, it can be difficult to do that.

  • One idea is for people to actually stand up. People sit down for all of our stand ups. A little ironic, I’m sure. But a little change like that may go a long way.

    Already standing up? Sit down. :-)

    • Hehe, thats a funny one, on a serious note though. I do believe it is important to actually stand up for stand-up (at least initially). The beauty of it is the fact that noone is too comfortable so people don’t want it to last long. I do think that once everyone understands what standup is all about, it is less important to strictly enforce that rule (which does not mean you don’t keep an eye on what goes on with your standup), if people have a broken leg it is probably ok for them to remain seated :).

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