When starting a team coaching assignment, I start with the question, "when this engagement is completed, how will you know we have been successful?" This helps create focus and set direction for the engagement. Early this year, while working with a marketing team, one, somewhat frustrated, woman gave me the answer “if we actually stood up at stand-ups!”
"Really? That's all?", I asked. That was something I was fairly sure I could do. (Just take away the chairs was my first idea.) But she continued.
“No,” she said, “it’s more than that.” She went on to explain that stand-up meetings were taking longer and longer and were now almost an hour. People droned on about details and dove into detailed discussions trying to make decisions and resolve problems. People would speak as long as fifteen minutes. As the meetings became longer, the meeting quickly transformed into a full-on project review meeting.
When I attended my first stand-up the following day, I found out it was even worse than described. As the meeting time was approaching, about a dozen people came into the room and sat down, some at the conference table and some in chairs in the back. Then, everyone began to take out their laptops. I was perplexed, but I was just observing that day so stayed quiet. As the meeting started, seven more remote team members joined via conference call.
The meeting itself consisted of walking through each and every open project story. The members of the team talked about status and discussed open questions. They resolved open issues and decided next steps and action plans there in the meeting. Using their open laptops, people researched issues, looked up emails, and conferred with documents. Those not part of the immediate discussion were emailing, instant messaging, and surfing the web.
I realized then, that things had gone awry with this meeting. And while they were calling it a stand up, it was far from it.
Over the ensuing weeks, I worked with the team to restructure the meeting, along with the reporting and tracking process. We separated out status reporting and working meetings from the stand-ups. It started with some clear meeting objectives, a defined agenda, and a heavy facilitation hand for the first week or two. We got the meeting down to twenty minutes in three weeks. As a result, everyone stayed engaged and focused. And most importantly, everyone actually stood up!
If your stand-ups are lacking, try applying these principles and practices to get your meetings focused and on task.
Pick a time that works for the group
Different team members have different work and personal schedules. Not everyone can make a 8:30 AM meeting time. Find a time which is reasonable to everyone so that people are more likely to attend and be ready. Most teams work well in the morning, but don’t be afraid to try an afternoon stand-up if that makes more sense. Generally, try to make it the same time each day, however I do have teams that meet at different times each day to accommodate flex schedules which have been successful.
Have a clear agenda with set time limits
The agenda needs to be short and focused. I recommend the following to start: what I finished yesterday, what I’m working on today, and where I need help. Some teams add something they learned or key announcements. Each team member goes through that agenda quickly; no discussion, no questions. Follow up on those after the meeting. Generally 1-2 minutes per person is a good heuristic.
Empower the facilitator to keep the meeting on schedule and on topic
The role of the facilitator is to keep the meeting on schedule and on topic. If someone starts getting into details or off the stand-up agenda, they need to politely ask them to move forward and wrap up. I find that people will only get better at stand-ups if they are held to time limits and are cut off if need be. People allowed to drone on have no incentive to get better and bad habits form. The team needs to understand that the facilitator’s job is to keep the meeting on schedule and respect everyone's time. They should treat everyone the same, don’t play favorites or play to power. The entire team needs to support that. I’ve had successful teams that have the same facilitator, others that have rotated between qualified people. Try both.
One person speaks at a time
When it’s someone’s turn to speak, only that person is speaking. No questions, no discussion, no sidebars. If a team allows people to interrupt it will be impossible to enforce time limits. The interrupted person’s time get taken away and it's too easy to then give them more which starts the spiral towards long stand ups. When someone’s done, the facilitator asks if there are any parking lot or follow up items and people can chime in quickly. Once that’s closed, move on to the next person quickly.
Cycle through people, not tasks
This is a common problem that I see: people cycle through tasks and everyone chimes in. The problem is that not every task is active or worth talking about so time is wasted. And then it becomes difficult to get the complete picture of what someone is working on as their information is segmented over several tasks. Keep the focus on the 48 hours window: 24 previous and 24 upcoming. One of the subtle impacts of rigorous stand-ups is that it exposes what people are working and how productive they are. It quickly shows if someone is getting stuck and needs help. Going by task conceals this information. Stand-ups are about checking in with people, not tasks. Go through each team contributor (see note below on Pigs and Chickens) on the team. Not all tasks will be discussed and that’s fine. Wrap up the meeting with any key announcements or upcoming events and then break. After the meeting, anyone on a parking lot item can coordinate with just those people to follow up and discuss.
Make status reporting simply “done” or “not done”
When reporting on status, insist that first thing said is either “done” or “not done”. Don’t let people start with explanations or caveats. “Not done” needs some further explanation of how close and why, but don’t let people start on that until it’s clearly indicated it’s not complete. This enables two things. First, it focuses everyone on results rather than effort. Good teams don’t reward effort, they reward completion of work on time and on budget. Second, it makes it clear to everyone that has a dependency or interest in the task its real status. As Yoda says, “do, or not do, there is no try.”
Use a parking lot to hold items that need more discussion
As each person presents, hold all questions and comments until they are done. At that point, open up the floor to parking lot items. “I want to follow up and hear more about that customer meeting” or “I have some feedback on the logo design,” but no discussing these during the stand-up, make it a follow-up conversation off-line. Make sure to assign someone to track the parking lot items and/or write them on a whiteboard or flip chart as you go; if the parking lot is not being tracked, people won’t trust it and will try to address things as they come up.
Have people prepare for the meeting
Everyone should be responsible for taking five minutes before the stand-up to organize their thoughts and what they are going to say. This keeps them on time when it comes to them and ensure they are communication the maximum amount of information within their slot. It also means that they are listening to what others are saying rather than trying to put together their thoughts as other people are speaking. One team I coached, made everyone hold up their notes before the meeting and anyone that didn’t have notes, wasn’t allowed to go. I liked it because it use consequences rather than having to chide people about coming unprepared.
Pigs speak, chickens listen
Scrum has a parable of the chicken and the pig. A chicken says to a pig, “I have a great idea for a new restaurant, and I’m willing to make you a 50/50 partner?” The pig asks, “sure, what’s the name?” “Bacon and Eggs,” says the chicken. The pig frowns and replies, “I don’t think so, you’re only involved, but I’m committed.” The point is, this meeting is for the people doing the work, not the people watching (executives, other team members, managers, etc.). These people are welcome to attend and listen in so long as their presence doesn’t interfere with the stand-up goal and agenda. They do not speak or ask questions. Only contributing team members participate in the stand-up.
Use video calls over conference calls
I’ve coached several teams that have remote team members. Some just doors away, other on the other side of the globe. If someone can’t be there in person, try to have them on a video call rather than a phone call. For a few reasons. One, it builds a stronger team bond by seeing them and getting to know the person beyond their disembodied voice. Two, video can help communicate body language. Three, it prevents people from engaging in other tasks that take away attention (looking at phones, emails, etc.).
Set clear ground rules
Every team should set a set of ground rules which are enforced by the facilitator. These should be developed by the team and regularly updated. Start them with a brainstorming session and unanimous vote for adoption. Some good basic ones are: phones off, start on time, end on time, have notes written down, one personal speaking at a time, stop when your time is up...and of course, stand up!
The power of stand-up meetings comes is that they re-align everyone and quickly remove roadblocks to ensure everyone is on target and moving forward productively. However, they have to be short and relevant to keep people engaged. Standing up helps remind people of that. If that doesn't work, try one leg.
For more information on Bruce and how he can help you and your company, visit http://www.eckfeldt.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.