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Three Things Killing Your Daily Standup

Anyone who has been responsible for facilitating a daily standup (or “Daily Scrum” for our Scrum folks) has probably seen things like these before:

  • Spotty attendance

  • Regular time overruns

  • Lack of engagement

  • That guy who misses the standup because he comes in exactly 15 minutes later than everyone else and blames it on traffic, so you reschedule the standup for 15 minutes later, and then he starts coming in 30 minutes later

Okay, that last one is a little specific (but it really happened to me).

Before you start bribing people with ice cream or theming your standups after popular horror movies, check and see if one of these standup killers is present in your standups.

Standup Killer 1: People don’t know why they’re there

The primary reason people don’t attend your standup is that it isn’t worth their time, and 90% of the reason it isn’t worth their time is rooted in people not knowing what the goal of the standup is. Interestingly, this is also the primary reason for standups regularly running long.

The purpose of your standup is for the team to look at their progress on the work that needs to be done and make adjustments if necessary to keep things on track. That’s it. It’s a quick session for your team to plan how to attack the day.

For Scrum teams, this often takes the form of looking at the Sprint Goal, making sure you are on track to meet the Sprint Goal, and making whatever adjustments may be necessary, if any. For Kanban teams, this often takes the form of comparing the progress of work items in progress to the service level expectations published by the team.

However your team answers the question of how your work is progressing, the point of the standup is for the team to plan their work for the day in light of that progress. Should they just keep on doing business as usual today? Should they pull someone off a lower priority user story to get a higher priority story out the door? Should someone reach out for information because a work item is blocked? Does someone need help getting their task done?

When your team is clear on the value of the standup for them (i.e. the team can effectively plan their day to make sure everything is moving forward), that motivates them to attend and participate. It also keeps the meeting focused and short.

Standup Killer 2: The focus is on the individual, not the team

When I was a Scrum baby, I learned that the daily Scrum meant going around the circle of attendees with everyone answering the questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?

  • What do you plan to do today?

  • Is anything blocking you?

There are a number of reasons why this is not a good way to do your standup, and one of those reasons is that it puts the focus of the standup on an individual’s progress and plan rather than the team’s progress and plan.

The purpose of the standup is not for people to give a status report to the audience or to make sure everyone is busy or anything like that.

The purpose is for the team to assess the team’s progress against the team’s goal and for the team to decide who is going to work on what for that day to keep work items moving.

In light of this, it’s typically not very relevant what a specific individual did yesterday, nor do we want individuals unilaterally planning their own work for the day. What we want is for the team to discuss their work and plan the day collectively.

One easy way to shift focus is, instead of going around to each attendee and asking them to report, go through the different work items that are in progress and ask how they’re going. If you’re on a Scrum team, bring up the Sprint Goal and ask if everyone thinks the Sprint Goal will still be accomplished. When you focus on the individual, people can feel like they’re being cross-examined—like they have to make themselves sound busy and competent since others are watching. This isn’t very motivational when you’re trying to get people to show up to this thing.

When the meeting is focused on the team, however, it becomes empowering and inspiring. The team is now in the driver’s seat, able to reallocate personnel and priorities to solve problems and rise to the challenges of the day.

Standup Killer 3: Ignoring work that’s in trouble

This is often a side-effect of an individual-focused standup.

In these standups, you’ll often hear things like this, “Yesterday, I worked on the UI for the Profile screen. I’ll be working on that today, too. No roadblocks.”

If everyone has an update similar to that, one might get the idea that things are going quite well for the team.

Things may be going well in “Individual Work World” but still going terribly in “Team Production World.” Are there items in progress that got dropped? Are there blocked items people are forgetting about? Is work moving through the stages of completion at a rate that everyone in the value stream can handle, or are some people having work queued up faster than they can complete it?

These issues are examples of workflow issues that require a view of the whole team’s work rather than individual progress reports. My daily work might be going on unimpeded, but what about the work item the team started that’s been blocked for a week? Is anyone working on that? Is anyone even aware it still exists?

Again, this is an issue that is often solved by focusing on the work to be done by the team rather than what each individual is currently doing. In that discussion, it may be important for individuals to share what they’re doing, but it’s within the larger context of the team addressing its own workflow.

One easy thing teams can start doing is paying attention to how long each item has been in progress. The longer something has been in your workflow, the more attention it should probably be getting. Having a policy where team members always work on the oldest in-progress items first is an easy way to do wonders for your team’s predictability.

Another thing you can do is make sure that blocked items are highly visible. Make them some bright, alarming color. Put them in a swimlane at the top of your board. Review the list of blocked items in every daily standup. There may be reasons why a team doesn’t prioritize a blocked item on a given day, but they should never drop off the radar.

Daily standups can be a hard practice to adopt, and attendance and participation problems are very common.

But before you start turning to participation gimmicks like everyone singing their updates or dressing up as their favorite Star Wars character, take a look at the standup itself. Does everyone know the goal and value of the standup, is it focused on that value, and is it delivering the value?

If your standups are useful to the attendees, they’ll attend.


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