The daily stand-up: 15 minutes that surprisingly have huge impact

The daily stand-up, daily scrum or simply the daily is the shortest of the Scrum ceremonies. On the surface, it is a place where the team meets every day to exchange updates. Its brevity is probably the reason why not much time is spent discussing it. However, the details of the daily scrum are what make or break it. If done right, the daily scrum is a very effective ceremony for removing issues, sharing information, team-building, and improving communication.

Today, I want to dig a little deeper. I will attempt to answer the following questions about the stand-up.

  • Why does it exist?
  • What is it and how does it work?
  • What are my best practices?

Let’s start with why it exists in the first place.


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The daily scrum is for review and adaptation

Within Scrum, in my view, the daily stand-up is the manifestation of one the core features of agile product development, reviewing progress and adapting if necessary. Thus, the main reason to have the daily stand-up is to have a fixed place where the team can check the current progress towards the sprint goal, plan the next steps, and change what it is working on, in case this is necessary.  

Besides this main reason there are other benefits that can come as side effects for the team. The stand-up is an efficient platform to use for sharing knowledge and insights, improving communication, identifying problems, and – with a bit of small talk – team building. With its regular occurrence it is also a ritual that can be the start of a deep work session.

What is the stand-up?

The daily stand-up is not rocket science. It is simply a regular meeting where the entire team comes together for a timeboxed period, usually no longer than 15 minutes, to quickly get everybody up to speed on what has happened since the last stand-up.

As the name implies, for most teams the stand-up happens every day. Depending on team preferences and circumstances the frequency can, however, also be different, e.g. three times a week.

Before I get into the details of how the daily scrum meeting works in practice I want to quickly address a topic that is often misunderstood but extremely important.   

The daily scrum is not about status reports

In many teams the daily scrum tends to become a meeting where the team gives status updates to the Scrum Master (SM), Product Owner (PO) or to some other stakeholder that may be present. This is not the purpose of the meeting! It exists so that the team members inform each other about what is happening.

Giving updates to the SM or PO may not seem like a big issue on the surface. However, if this happens every day in the stand-up it quickly turns into a dynamic where the team places the PO/SM at the center. It’s a step away from a self managed, empowered team. 

Thus, It is extremely important that the team is aware and weary of this dynamic. It happens frequently, even if PO, SM, and the team are trying to avoid it. As soon as we notice it, we need to remind ourselves that the daily stand-up is there for the team. 

As a side note, this antipattern is often a sign of a team that is not empowered. They are a feature or delivery team that builds what stakeholders define. It’s not easy to change that, as it usually requires significant mindset changes in the entire organization. Nevertheless, in the daily itself, we should still try to avoid it even if we do not have the power to move the whole company.

The daily stand-up in practice

Having gotten that off my chest, let’s look at how the daily scrum actually works. I want to touch on three points:

  • The basics of the stand-up
  • The three guiding questions
  • Asynchronous stand-ups

Let’s start with the basics.

The basics of the stand-up

The daily stand-up is a fixture in the calendar. It happens regularly, usually every day at the same time. It depends on team size, but for the vast majority of teams 15 minutes is plenty of time. 

The development team and Scrum master always participate. The PO is an optional participant. Nevertheless, I have found it extremely beneficial for the PO to be there regularly. Other stakeholders are welcome to join as well and listen (only!). 

In case the team is co-located, the members actually stand-up and meet at the physical board. In case of a remote team, one of the participants shares the virtual board. The board is used for facilitation and the team goes from story to story and quickly shares any updates, if there are any. 

Discussions will frequently arise about issues the team is facing or about the details of technical solutions. Those should be kept short. In case they can’t be resolved within a few minutes, the moderator or any of the team members needs to jump in and stop the discussion. The team then needs to solve the issue in a separate session. We usually do this right after the stand-up. Anybody that is not interested can then leave.

Speaking of facilitation, in an ideal world the team members facilitate this meeting themselves. In practice, especially for teams that are fairly new to Scrum, the SM will likely moderate, at least in the beginning. 

In order to get to the ideal, fully self-organized state, the SM must at some point cede this responsibility to the team members. As an intermediate step, it can make sense to define one person to facilitate all stand-ups in one week or for an entire sprint until the team members organically start to self organize and moderate it themselves.

I am not a fan of the three questions

Many teams use the following three questions to guide through the daily stand-up.

  • What did I do yesterday?
  • What am I going to do today?
  • What problems am I facing? 

One by one every team member answers these questions. While they do give some useful structure, especially for teams not familiar with Scrum, I am not a big fan of them (and they were also removed from the official Scrum guide some years ago).

I prefer not to use these questions as they focus on the people instead of the topics. They have an air of status reporting that we want to avoid. Instead, I prefer to simply go from story to story and just share what’s going on.

Asynchronous daily scrum

One practice that seems to be gaining popularity are asynchronous daily stand-ups. In this case, the team uses a service to asynchronously share their updates. For some companies this is the only option, since their teams are located in completely different time zones.

If the team members are in the same or a similar time zone, I tend to avoid the asynchronous version of the stand-up. Of course, you are still able to share the updates with the asynchronous version of the daily.

However, for the vast majority of teams you don’t get the fruitful discussions, interesting solutions and other benefits of a team talking to each other. Asynchronous stand-ups also require more discipline to actually write down every day what is happening.

Best practices for the daily scrum

Finally, I want to share some best practices I have found to be beneficial in making the stand-up more effective. I will hit on the following topics:

  • PO and SM sharing information
  • The role of any other participants
  • Only sharing what is necessary
  • Scheduling

Product Owner and Scrum Master sharing information 

As a PO frequently joining stand-ups, I always share what I have planned for the day or anything interesting that I learned recently. I recommend that the SM does this as well. Besides learnings from work, I also tend to share news from within the company (e.g. people leaving/joining, a big client we signed, interesting things that other teams found).

I have found this to help in making the SM/PO feel like actually being part of the team. It places them on one level with the developers. This, in turn, helps avoid creating the atmosphere where the team feels like they are reporting to the SM or PO.

The role of any other participants in the daily stand-up

While I recommend that Scrum Master or Product Owner take an active role in the daily scrum, all other participants are passive listeners. Of course, if there is a specific question or problem that the stakeholder is uniquely suited to answer, he or she can and should do this. 

However, in my experience this is rarely the case and the additional participants cause more confusion than solve any problems. This is especially true for a specific type tech manager that joins once every two weeks, has no idea what’s going on, doesn’t realize this, and then jumps in right away to give advice that – most of the time – makes no sense at all. Trust me, we have all been there 😉 

The team, PO, and SM need to intervene right away when that happens and teach the stakeholders that they are there to listen only.

Only sharing what is necessary

If there is nothing to say then there is nothing to say. It’s that simple. Many team members feel the need to report something because everybody else is doing it. In my view, this is related to trust and rooted in the belief that not sharing in detail what is happening means that they are not working.

Appearing busy and being productive are not the same thing. Thus, it’s perfectly fine to simply state something along the lines of “Nothing to share for task XYZ, we are progressing”. This often needs to be taught and may take some time to get used to. In the end, however, it will lead to shorter stand-ups where only actually important topics are discussed.

Scheduling

The stand-up needs to happen at the same time, always. For me, it’s a sacred time slot in my calendar. Only in very special circumstances should we reschedule or schedule something else in parallel. 

Most teams seem to have the daily scrum first thing in the morning as a ritual to start the day. This has worked really well for the teams I have collaborated with. However, some teams prefer to have it during other times of the day. 

If that’s the case, the only advice I tend to give is to not put it right in the middle of the morning or afternoon. For most teams, this is when they are most productive. Having a stand-up at that time pulls them out of their concentrated, deep work sessions. I then suggest having it before or after a natural break in the day, like lunchtime.

The stand-up is a great tool for many circumstances

I first encountered the daily stand-up while working in the automotive industry. This wasn’t in the context of Scrum. Its name also wasn’t stand-up or daily Scrum. It was called Taskforce Alignment (or something similar to that). 

I am not sure if this is still the case today, but back then, whenever a project was risking the start of production of a product – a HUGE deal in the automotive industry – a taskforce would be set up. All the leaders of the subprojects would meet there daily, sometimes including the customer, to solve issues. It streamlined communication and decision making, and was one of several tools deployed to meet the deadline. 

I never understood why we only did this when it was almost too late. Why did we not set-up something like this from the beginning of the project? 

What I am trying to illustrate here is that the daily stand-up and its benefits are at the core of the Scrum framework. However, we can reap the benefits in many other situations. Whether you are using Scrum or not, whether you are doing software development or working in finance, a short 15 minute meeting every morning where the team discusses what is going on will be beneficial.

Just try it out and see what happens.

Coverphoto by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash