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I have been running standups for many years and I’ve never liked them. I often state that they are a symptom of suboptimal communication within a team and that the best teams I worked with did not need a standup. After having an enjoyable conversation on twitter, I thought of expanding those statements. I’m never at ease with statements like those. They’re bold but generally lack substance. Twitter’s character limitation doesn’t help either. I want to share what my experience with standups is and what I think about them from different perspectives. I have been leading developers for a long time, so most of my experience with them is about running standups. I attended a daily standup for a few months and I’m grateful for the experience. It made me realise how different the perspective can be depending on your role.
Before I dive into the topic, let me spend a few minutes on the mediator role and its relationship with meetings. I believe every meeting needs a mediator. I correlate the presence of this role and the quality of a meeting: good mediation facilitates good conversation and good conversations are good meetings. Things run smoother when someone keeps everyone focused on a common goal. I’ve been in many meetings without a mediator and it has always been a frustrating experience. No one knows what’s the point of the conversation, who’s doing what and what participants are supposed to get out of it. It makes me think that “I hate meetings” means “I hate badly run meetings”. Standups are meetings so I think a standup needs a mediator, someone who runs it.
As you can imagine, I disliked attending a standup without a mediator. People felt forced into a conversation every morning and it set the mood to be grumpy. Not a great way to start a day. Moreover, I often left those meetings thinking it was a waist of my and other people’s time. We knew what was going on within the team every day. We were doing the work and we thought the standup was a form of control. But it wasn’t true. I have learned to assume best intentions recently in my career; at the time, I did not have this wonderful tool. Assuming people’s best intentions makes you see things from a different perspective. My managers didn’t want to control us, they were good people. They just didn’t know how to run a standup. That was our problem. At some point, we realised something was wrong and introduced a form of mediation. Things got better. People were more keen to communicate because they started seeing value in attending the standup.
Attending a daily standup for a few months taught me that running a standup is hard. The key to improvement is constant feedback and the ability to experiment things every day. When I started running standups, I knew nothing about it. I did it by the book. I was reading about SCRUM and that felt like sci-fi to my fresh corporate background. Doing things by the book makes me uncomfortable though. I started asking myself what the goal of a standup was. Why would I want to run a standup? It was the turning point. My answer changed often over the years and my current answer is: getting people closer to each other. Leading a team comes with a unique perspective over the rest of the team members. As the goal is to support others, a leader manages to learn about the people she works with faster than the team themselves. She can recognise behavioural patterns, understand why someone is having a hard time and set up a path to help. Team members learn about each other slower than their leaders as they have less chance to interact with everyone else. Teams tend to create sub-teams. Sub-teams emerge out of a sitting plan, or the fact that people work on the same part of the system or like to go to lunch together. I think there’s nothing wrong with it and I welcome whatever helps people have more productive communication. From this perspective, running a standup has been a powerful tool over the past ten years. Especially with younger teams: be them young because of their experience or because they haven’t worked together long enough.
I stated “great teams don’t need a standup” at the beginning, and now I can clarify my statement. In my view, great teams share the following:
I didn’t see such teams often in my career, so my experience tells me they are rare. And I wish they weren’t, and I wish I had been able to build more teams like that. So far, I didn’t feel the need for standups only twice in my career. The two teams had something special in common: they were completely self-organised. We didn’t need inspiration or structure to figure out what we were doing next. We had minimal electronic support. We used whiteboards with drawings representing the current state of development. Every day we’d update the state by drawing new things. In one team, we worked with redmine (good old redmine) tickets. Each person had one, and we had a view called “now”. The point, though, was not the tools or techniques we were using. The point was that we did not need to force ourselves into asking each other “What you’re up to today? Can I help you?” Our workflow was so natural that we needed almost no tools or structure. Not to mention a daily meeting.
I find it fascinating: the closer the team is, the less structure and tooling they need to do their job. I observed this phenomenon while running standups too. As soon as a team gets stronger, they start disliking the standup. It feels unneeded and redundant. There are many quotes about learning the rules, so you can break them and that’s a good reason for that. Structure helps seeing the borders of a process, it helps to distinguish the right path from the wrong one. But structure comes with no context and context is everything. If everyone has enough context, then structure feels silly, rules and policies — annoying. The more senior the team is, the less structure it needs.
At this point, it almost sounds like I’m advocating for getting rid of standups completely as teams become more experienced. But I would disagree with that when it comes to running multiple teams. Multiple teams means coordination. The overhead makes things harder. Everything at scale is harder but nothing is harder than communication at scale. Asking the team to produce frequent written updates helps sharing more information between teams. It helps the leads to spot dependencies and it facilitates coordination. I like to call this form of communication “streaming documentation”, and there are many ways to achieve it. Suggesting teams to use a standup is a good way to start implementing “streaming documentation”. It’s easy to build up some notes about what’s going on if you meet frequently for the same reason.
Standups can be helpful as long as you’re conscious of the benefits and aware of the potential problems they come with. In this industry, there’s really no silver bullet. I think you might be wondering why I don’t like standups — after all, I shared a few things I find useful about them. It’s kind of a stupid philosophical problem I have always had with teams and leadership. I like perfection, although I know I can’t have it. Attending or running a standup every morning is a sad activity from that perspective. Because it’s a constant reminder: we could be doing a better job at basic communication.