A better stand up by walking the board

10th Dec, 2017 | agile

Stand ups are a vital part of the day on any project. They can be the only time in the day the whole team is assembled alongside the customer or product owner, so the perfect opportunity to review progress and set goals to steer the project towards overall success.

However, this ceremony must be fast and efficient to ensure there is plenty of day left to put the planning into action and the team don’t get hit with ‘meeting fatigue’. We need a set of rules to keep it fast paced without losing the details.

In this post I'm going to dissect the format I was originally introduced to for stand ups, and share some personal observations of how changing to a different format has dramatically improved the speed and usefulness of the daily sync.

Let's start with the original format.

Time to stand up

For the stand up meeting, teams commonly use a format which aims to be both quick and comprehensive:

  • The team stands around the task board.
  • Each team member, in turn, describes what they achieved yesterday, what they intend to achieve today, and what blockers they may be facing.
  • Aim to keep the meeting short and less than 15 minutes
  • That’s it!

Anyone who has worked on an agile project is likely to have experience with this format, known as "three questions". Until recently I thought this was the only format, and certainly widespread.

So if this format is so established, is it worth looking for an alternative?

Let’s look at this process in more detail and see if we can do any better!

The three question stand up in practice

The focus of the standup tends to be on the activities of each individual of the team. This is less than ideal for many reasons:

  • Although it’s against the principles there’s a natural tendency to try to show you’ve done lots of work, rather than describe what is useful to others.
  • With that, some may spend too much time describing details that are not relevant to others.
  • It can be hard to remember when put on the spot all the key things done yesterday, and may omit something important.
  • You might not yet have been able to determine what tasks are suitable to pick up next.
  • It can be hard to follow the progress, future work, and blockers described for each individual one after the other. The rest of the team have to continually context switch and piece together bits that may relate to them and the overall project. For example two team members may have worked on the same task yesterday, but their comments regarding it will not be reported simultaneously.
  • If a task was not worked on yesterday, or doesn't appear in anyone’s plans for today, it won’t be mentioned at all. This could result in tasks slipping.
  • As the standup progresses attention span naturally dwindles so those reporting towards the end receive less benefit.
Standup using three questions
Team members complete their report in order but this results in the project tasks are scattered.

Generally, this format highlights individuals working on personal tasks. The team follow one after the other but the tasks they each describe are mixed up.

What would be better is a team focus on the overall goals of the project.

So how?

Walking the board

Instead of a focus on individuals, we should focus on the team effort towards the overall project. What is a snapshot of the current project progress? The task board! Instead of hearing each team member in turn, hear a summary of each task on the board. How do we decide what order to go through the tasks on the board? Start with the important stuff first!

We can follow a few rules to maximise the benefits from this approach:

Elect someone to walk the board

Anyone can walk the board, even someone with no knowledge of the project. You could have the same person each day but this could lead to a 'reporting to the leader' style rather than reporting to the team. Variety also helps keep things fresh so team members should take turns in walking the board.

Walk this way - go through the tasks in the correct order

Tasks should be covered in order of priority:

  • First cover expedite and blockers. Those should be in the top row of the board, and 'walked' from right to left so the ones nearest the 'done' or 'gone live' column are covered first. With this method, anything that is blocking work or mission critical is discussed first. The person walking the board can ask the team member working on to report progress. How long is it likely to take? Should the entire team jump on it to get it over the line quickly?
  • Work in the normal workflow is covered from right to left. This ensures work that is closest to completion, and has had the most time invested in it, (therefore most valuable in terms of effort) is discussed first. As each work item is covered, the board walker can ask the team member working on the task to report on progress and if there are any issues. The whole team can join the discussion if they can see any way to help progress.
Walking the board in order of priority
The numbers in red indicate the order tasks are reported. This reminds team members of priorities and puts the focus on completing tasks.

The higher up the board a task is the higher it's priority. As tasks move along the board more people have spent time on them. Therefore tasks on the right have more invested value than those on the left. So working from top to bottom and right to left ensures tasks are ordered by priority and value.

Favour the team working on tasks, rather than individuals working on tasks

While walking the board you may find a task where the team member assigned is off project or unavailable. Instead of skipping the task the team can still discuss it. They may decide another team member should take on the task to ensure it does not stagnate.

Keep it short and sweet

The purpose of the daily sync is to prioritise tasks for the team to complete that day. If it gets to the point where it's clear the team has discussed all they need to for that day then it is fine to stop the meeting and get going with the tasks. It might be that not every task on the board has been covered but that's ok - either those tasks will not be started until tomorrow, or if things do go quicker than expected, they can be picked up and any questions can be raised directly.

This approach leads to really quick meetings which team members, managers and clients all appreciate!

The verdict

All of my recent projects have used the walking the board format of daily sync, and the feedback from all has been excellent. Teams, managers and clients find the format refreshingly quick but still effective, with clear priorities and workloads.

I’ve noticed the walking the board also helps reduce the time it takes for work to get across the board and into production. Whenever a team member completes a task they can view the board and ‘walk’ it in their head. When they get to a task they can help with, they can jump on it. For example a developer may notice that a release is ready that they can arrange to deploy to production immediately rather than picking up a new task from the backlog. Another example might be a bug found on UAT that is holding up the next release. The developer can start fixing the bug immediately to get UAT back on track rather than picking up new work from the backlog.

Following this type of routine helps reduce the amount of work in flight on the board, which reduces lead times (the time it takes to get a task completed to production) thus reducing the amount of tasks in flight on the board. This in turn means it is easier to walk the board and focus on a smaller amount of tasks.

A nice place to be!

What do you think? Feel free to leave comments below!