Rethinking Stand-Up Meetings, Part 1

by Steven M. Smith · 10 comments

Stand-up meetings are popular in software development organizations now.

What makes a stand-up meeting more effective than a traditional meeting to socialize status information?

Nothing.

The effectiveness of a stand-up meeting, like the traditional status meeting, depends on the participants. If you have the right people at the meeting, you can be effective whether the participants are sitting down, standing up, or standing on their head.

The theory behind a stand-up meeting is that a physical reminder of the duration of the meeting will keep it shorter. The longer the meeting, the more your body signals it’s time to stop. The proponents of stand-up meetings like this natural time-boxing signal. Every participant feels the signal to some degree.

The signal may be too strong, however, for people who have a physical problem that make standing difficult. For instance, I twisted my ankle recently, it’s painful when I stand on it.

If I am a good teammate who listens and participates appropriately, does it matter whether I’m standing or sitting down with my ankle propped up? No, of course not. It matters how I participate, not the position of my body.

I have heard that proponents of stand-up meetings claim that the meetings helps build teamwork. If your teamwork is better, I am thrilled for your team. But I doubt whether the stand up component made the difference.

When I started my career, I had to wear a tie every day. The next job required a suit. Management told me clothing built teamwork. I think standing up during a meeting is like wearing a tie. My teamwork isn’t any better wearing a suit and tie than it is when I wear shorts and a t-shirt And I don’t believe my team’s effectiveness changes whether they are standing up or sitting down during a meeting.

If you want to have effective meetings of any kind, you need leaders in the room. That’s the kind of people I referred to as “the right people” earlier. Leaders who organize the meeting; leaders who lead the meeting; and leaders who follow other leaders.

If you have people who see no value in meeting with their teammates, having people stand up might help the meeting from lasting too long. But there is more to an effective meeting than preventing people from being trapped in a room.

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Please read about my positive regard for elements of the SCRUM stand-up meeting in my article Rethinking Stand-Up Meetings, Part 2.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

WayneM August 2, 2007 at 9:44 am

Non-Obvious Advantage of Standing Up and Other Comments.

I can only claim 9 months experience using stand up meetings on one project, but I would like to make some observations that differ from this article.

One of the non-obvious advantages of having a stand up versus a sit down meeting is that it frees the team from conference rooms and conference room schedules. We appropriated a corner off of a hallway that our team “owned.” We didn’t have to schedule access and we were able to leave items posted on the wall and items on a whiteboard full time. Without having to compete with others for the space, we could lock down our meeting time.

Concerning preparation for the meeting, my recommendation is don’t. If you are having daily meetings, it does not require that much effort to remember what you did yesterday or plan to do today. In trade for having team members agree to meet daily, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure the effort required does not exceed 15 minutes (I usually targetted 10 minutes for an 11 man team and we met that about 50% of the time).

1 1/2 minutes of uninterrupted speaking time is actually quite a lot (as any members of Toastmasters might substantiate). Keeping reporting time to 1 minute a person for daily meetings is quite feasible, especially considering that there is not usually much need to answer the third Scrum question, “What is blocking me?”

In Scrum, there is a feedback mechanism for the daily status meetings – the monthly iteration retrospective. This is a wide open forum conducted as a sit down meeting covering all aspects of the previous month’s effort.

All in all, our team was quite happy with the stand up approach and became strongly motivated to keep the duration short. The hidden advantage of not requiring chairs and a table allowed us to use an otherwise dead area of the office and take total ownership of the (admittedly quite small) space.

Reply

Steven M. Smith August 2, 2007 at 9:57 am

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Wayne.

Your team’s ownership of your own space trumps any objections I have to standing up. I hadn’t considered that possibility. It’s now an option that’s available to me and others.

-Steve

Reply

Cindy Shelton January 8, 2008 at 3:41 pm

Agile Communication Norms – Aka Standups, Huddles, Chickens and Pigs.

I believe the success being discussed is not a result of “standing up” at a standup/huddle but is a result of having a stable location to give the team continuity.

For years I have found daily meetings a sweet tool that increases communication. Long before I knew about Scrum, I had my road warrior project teams meet every morning at 7:30 at the customers site. Initially, I just wanted to see them sober and have time to react (don’t ask), but like others, I found great value. We didn’t stand up but we did have a dedicated war room. Later, as an Agile coach and Scrum Master, I enthusiastically employed standups – but eventually took to leaving it as a team decision.

Having led 27 Agile projects to date, I feel somewhat qualifed to share my observations albeit some of those projects were only a month long. Some were over a year long though! I have had teams stand up, sit, and present in several modes and environments. Those are:

Standing up doesn’t make the team more comfortable or increase their adherence to the norms.

Standing up doesn’t give me a place to keep my project artifacts – but it does make chairs not needed.

Standing up doesn’t curb peoples ability to rant, discuss or digress at a meeting. It more about how the meetings are conducted and as stated earlier – who is there.

If the product owner is there – teams can be restricted in their exchanges or more verbose – depending upon the individuals. The idea is to have the product owner observe only and not make ANY comments – hence the chicken and the pig concept previlent among agile circles. It works well but takes leadership to mentor team members on how to behave in this new meeting structure.

Agile teams are all about embracing change but the human element requires some level of stability and comfort. A daily team meeting provides that as well as a “home” for the team – even if it is in a corner.

So while I understand your belief that the standups increased communication I believe that it was having their own location that provided the sense of belonging so critical to team building.

Thoughts?

Reply

Steven M. Smith December 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Cindy, Although I’m really late replying to you comment, I want you to know that I agree with you that the same location for the meeting helps the participants take ownership.

You come across as a savvy leader. Thank you for sharing you experience, -Steve

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Earl Everett July 28, 2009 at 11:19 am

Stand ups can be 35% shorter, with no loss of decision quality.

There is a fascinating set of studies from research on decision making in meetings that suggests if you have people stand up rather than sit down, the meetings run about 35 percent shorter without any loss of decision quality.

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Steven M. Smith July 19, 2009 at 7:23 am

Any intervention has a chance of improving a pathetically led meeting.

I haven’t seen the studies, but that results seems reasonable. From my experience, the design and leadership of most meetings are pathetic so forcing people to stand up probably would make them shorter and wouldn’t change the quality of decisions.

I don’t, however, believe for one second that the same effect would be true for a well led meeting. Standing up wouldn’t change the quality of the decisions and it wouldn’t make the duration of the meeting any shorter.

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LJ April 16, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I am an accountant. My manger has daily stand ups for a staff of 5 plus weekly staff meetings. I hate the daily stand ups. It has turned into each person telling what they are going to do for the day. We all sit about 15 feet from each other and will talk to one another when we need help. It makes me feel like a child when I have to get up at the same time every day and go to my bosses office for ‘show and tell’. Completely demoralizing. We tried to get the manager to stop this nonsense; we were not the first group to complain. The manager pulled out a book and told us how good it was for the team. It does build relationships. we all had the shared eye roll when going to the managers office.

Reply

Steven M. Smith April 18, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Hi LJ, You have my empathy. It sounds like a terrible experience.

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