You don’t have to be a software developer to know what it’s like to waste time in a stand up meeting. This agile process has made its way through the ranks of all manner of business teams. Marketing, sales, customer success, and even executive leadership teams have adopted stand ups as an efficient way to convey status to a key group of people working toward a specific goal.
But somewhere along the way, stand-ups lost their way and got stuck in the weeds. This guide is a path out of those weeds, whether you’re in a product role, a leadership role, or any other role that might use stand-ups.
What makes stand up meetings valuable?
Let’s not throw away a perfectly good hunk of cheese just because it’s got a little mold on it, right? Stand-ups are valuable—or at least they can be. They’re a nicely structured form of synchronous communication.
Stand-ups happen on a regular cadence, with rules and standards everyone acquiesces to, even if they don’t agree entirely. They keep key stakeholders up to date and offer a chance to clear the way for progress on a daily or weekly basis.
You can share ideas quickly in a stand up. You have to because they’re intended to be short. They’re not a place for contemplating, ruminating, pontificating, or chattering.
Stand-ups are intentionally short to allow just the most crucial information to be shared. They bias toward quick knowledge transfer, but with just enough room for the sort of open discussion that can only happen synchronously.
Stand-ups are a chance to commune. Especially in a time when there are no impromptu trips to grab a snack together or lean back to chat. Stand-ups are a welcome reminder that you work on a team with other humans—that those avatars submitting pull requests, breaking the build, and posting GIFs throughout the day are real.
It’s important to have a good way of sharing information long-term as a team. Oral history is a beautiful thing, but it’s not really a good fit for business communications. That’s why tools like notion, confluence, GitHub, and GDocs (among others) exist. Teams need a long-term memory. But that’s not what stand-ups are about.
Stand-ups provide a simple way to share key information in the moment, with the people who need it most. In practice, they’re often ephemeral. If you remember what happened in a stand-up two and a half weeks ago, hats off, but you’re the exception.
And that’s OK. Most of the knowledge sharing you participate in during a stand up is intentionally ephemeral. It’s intended to fade out of your collective consciousness once it’s been addressed.
All efforts require a shift at some point. Even walking. If you don’t shift in time—if you zig when you should’ve zagged—things can turn upside-down pretty quick.
Stand-ups are an opportunity to course correct early on, before you have an “iceberg, right ahead!” moment.
What makes stand up meetings less valuable?
Okay, so it sounds like stand-ups are amazing, and we should all hold them twice a day, right? Well, not exactly.
Stand up meetings are the poster child for wasted potential.
We could be scanning the horizon for icebergs; instead people don’t speak up. When we’re trying to preserve productive time, stand-ups get us out of our seats and out of a productive mind state. This is especially true of daily stand-ups.
Time spent getting everyone together
It takes a while to gather your gaggle, even in the best of times, and there’s always at least one slowpoke. You might think that remote work would have changed that, but it takes just as long—if not longer—to get everyone into a video meeting.
In person, you can wave your hands and get someone’s attention. In remote land, all you can do is fire a message off the bow and hope it catches their eye.
It’s not just the time spent moving from point A to point B. There’s a cost to task switching, and it’s measured in cognitive load. From that perspective, your “15 minute” stand up costs more than you think—probably something in the one-hour range, depending on your team.
You may have already discussed a crucial issue on the initiative you’re working on with the person you’re teamed up with, but in an in-person stand up, you have to tell everyone about it regardless. That’s a waste of time.
Unless you’re repeating yourself for emphasis, there’s not much value in sharing the same information more than once.
Have you ever joined a stand up that devolved into a strategy meeting? I sure have. It’s happened often enough to me that I’m not sure they're two separate types of meeting, or that a stand up isn’t just a prelude to a long-hauler.
Tangents are the enemy of getting stuff done. Don’t go on tangents.
How do you keep the best parts of stand-ups, while dropping the worst?
Okay, whoah, so maybe we shouldn’t all do stand-ups twice a day? No, we shouldn’t. At least not the way most of us do them.
But there’s a magic moment where standups shift from chaotic and wasteful to engaging and valuable. That moment comes when you look your process square-on, and think about improving it every day.
You can still get the benefits of stand-ups without all the mess (or at least less of it). You can magnify their benefits, and even find new ones. There are just a few key things to do.
Automate, automate, automate
Get back to the engineering roots of stand-ups. Follow the DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principle. If you do the same thing more than three or four times, why isn’t it already automated?
Take the boring parts out, and keep the rest.
Post status updates asynchronously so by the time everyone’s in the room and settled, you already know what’s done, what’s on the docket, and who’s blocked.
Waste less time on status updates, and you’ll have more time to commune, or to talk about more interesting, fun, and creative problems to solve.
While at face value, the information shared in stand-ups is intentionally transient, there’s a lot of data hiding just beneath the surface if you can connect the dots.
Maybe Hiba is blocked 30 percent of the time because she works faster than everyone else and doesn’t have something assigned she can move onto. A tool or vendor you work with might be slowing everyone down.
Maybe it’s the marketing department’s history of lobbying to scoot the delivery date (sorry 😬💙).
If you have enough historical context, these things are easier to see, and ultimately act on. Make sure you have a way of reviewing past stand-ups in aggregate, so those dots are easier to connect.
Log and track the icebergs
It’s not enough to call out a potential issue during a stand up. If there’s no plan to address it, you’ll find it again (or it’ll find you).
Stand-ups are your early warning system. Just like all those scientists glued to seismographs or telescopes in natural disaster movies, you should also be recording those squiggly lines somewhere and revisiting them before you get snuck up on by “The Big One.”
Keep a running record of obstacles and blockers, but also larger project risks. Tracking these things makes them easier to manage or avoid entirely.
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What else can you do?
Everyone’s team is different. You might not struggle with each of these downsides, but you might also not benefit from all the positives. These are just a few examples of things you can do to make stand-ups more valuable, but it’s only a start.
The best step you can take toward wasting less time in stand up meetings is to care about them. Value your productive time, value the productive time of your colleagues, and value that time you get to commune and get creative. It’s all worth protecting.
How about you?
What does your team do? Do you have any tips for wasting less time in stand-ups? We’d love to hear all about it @polly.ai
Written by George Dickson
Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.