Reimagining the Standup


It seems like every team that I’ve been on holds some flavor of daily “stand-up” meeting. Especially once hybrid and remote work became necessarily en vogue, a daily standing meeting seemed a panacea to a whole host of modern organizational ailments. Thus a new breed of meeting was born, justified with all the original big-meeting killing rationale of Agile™️ processes, but often missing the forest for the trees, driving teams back into the daily slump of boring meetings. It’s worth raising the question of whether your own well-meaning daily exercise has decayed into something that no longer serves its intended purpose - it happens easily!

Stand by me!

As my engineering dinosaur feathers grow in, I recall a distant time when my team would gather around our lead’s desk in a tight circle every day in the morning. Each of my teammates had straggled in, oriented themselves to what was on their plate for the day, and came ready to talk. We exchanged information with tight, cross-talking fluidity - and the name wasn’t a coincidence! It was an actual “standing” meeting, in that we would be on our feet, giving us all a little more pressure to keep the meeting quick, functional, and effective.

Fast forward a few years, and though most of the team was still in the same office, technology allowed teams to become vastly distributed across time and space. Remote communication made the distributed standup possible for the first time, but it became much trickier to pull off effectively. For one thing, there simply was no “first thing in the morning” that worked for everyone, so while SF engineers were just starting their day, folks on the East Coast were already finished with lunch. For a hybrid team, if part of the team WAS in-person, it meant the remote folks needed to be represented by a laptop or situated far against the wall on a screen. And for the remote callers on the other side of that screen, the daily ritual became entirely detached, with A/V issues often making their compatriots seem even further away. I remember being the guy on the screen when I first transitioned into a remote role - couldn’t help but feel like the kid standing just outside the circle on the playground.

Eventually, fully remote teams became far more the norm for me, and customary stand-ups followed, though by this point they had become something pretty far removed from the rose-tinted desk huddles of my distant memory. The daily video call was seen as an exercise de rigeur, even as its effectiveness dwindled.

So why are we still imposing this small daily burden? Well, it does have its good points…

When it's bad

  • The audience in the room has grown so large and generalized, that many people just aren’t concerned with a large portion of the others’ day-to-day work, and can’t even really remember what everyone has said even if they wanted to. Peripheral players get included just for the sake of inclusion and team building, even if their work is not relevant to others on a day-to-day basis. Meetings drag on endlessly so everyone gets their turn.
  • Team members start viewing their “share” as less of a way to exchange vital information others need, and more as a laundry list of boxes that have been, or will be checked.
  • Most of the communication devolves into people speaking directly to their manager, with an inherent (usually false) assumption that every other team member is listening intently and effectively, absorbing each cumulative update.

When it’s ugly

  • The standup is considered the one and only time during the day that the team gets together, and so starts filling the place of other, more casual and focused small group decision meetings. As the duration stretches out longer, participants’ attention wanders to the myriad distractions lying in other windows. Everyone looks effectively busy, while important decisions get lost in the chaos.
  • Managers view the standup as an opportunity to re-prioritize an IC’s work on a day-to-day basis, eroding their pillar of autonomy before the first cup of coffee.
  • Status exchange effectiveness grinds to near zero, with team members having to chase each other down for followup conversations, despite holding a daily, expensive meeting

What to do?

Knowing that these meetings can quickly lose their effectiveness once a distributed team grows, what can be done to retain a stand-up meeting’s value?

Keep the guest list tight

Once there are about 7 people in the circle, the group starts to reach the limits of attention and memory. One of our Engineering Managers, Catherine Fleres, likes to abide by the “Two-Pizza Rule” - if it takes more than that to adequately feed everyone in a meeting, there are too many people at the table! Strive to keep standup groups to just relevant stakeholders in a focused topic. Organize into squads, and split meetings ruthlessly. If there are other, larger team-wide broadcasts that need to be made, consider alternate channels or meeting formats.

Consider actually standing

Teammates think I’m crazy when I suggest this, because it involves an extremely awkward coordinated dance of adjusting cameras, changing desk heights, and just generally looking silly in a room alone. Strange as it seems, the physiological pressure of being in a less-than-leisurely body pose can help keep shares nice and short - direct and to the point.

Take discussions offline… ruthlessly …

It starts innocently enough: a status update sparks a question, and the answer is detailed and complex, which sparks a follow-up from the original speaker. Before they even realize it, the two participants have taken the meeting off the rails, and everybody else’s eyes are slowly glazing over as they hash out the finer points. Develop a team culture for tabling those important conversations compassionately, and following up after the group has dispersed. It can feel rude to have to police this, so it’s especially important that everybody is bought in and held accountable, and understands a shared signal to move it along. Encourage followups to happen in a separate “space”, so that there is a clear signal that uninterested parties are not obligated to attend.

Optimize for broadband communication

Standing meetings can sometimes grow large to accommodate the schedule of a single individual who has become the hub from which all others are spokes. The entire meeting degrades from n to n communication to serial bursts of 1:1 exchanges with that single person. This is often indicative of larger organizational chokepoints, and a good hint it’s time to delegate responsibility more broadly and spread the load.

Make space for other group collaboration

Is the daily standup the only place where group communication happens on your team? Do decisions get rushed, because they have to be made while a roomful of disinterested folks wait for their turn? Do important announcements get forgotten, buried in a laundry list of mundane updates? Make room for the longer discussions, note their importance, and encourage them to happen in a properly framed meeting venue with strictly the interested parties.

Double down on autonomy

It’s common to justify a daily gathering as a way of tracking team accountability. Tickets closed, code merged, charts burnt down. Around the table, the ICs get the message that they need to justify their existence (perhaps to their manager?), and so their shares become a list of yesterday’s accomplishments. The meetings transform into a status dump for a theoretically rapt listener than effective team communication. Think about this - in your own daily meetings, to what audience is the speaker framing their share? Do participants seem like they’re collaborating and engaging with each other, or mostly to the manager? If your meeting culture expects every detail to be reported up the chain on a daily cadence, it can easily undermine an IC’s sense of work autonomy. It leaves the door open for unwelcome scrutiny, micro-management, and ultimately starts to wear on motivation and engagement.

While managerial demands for daily status checks seem reasonable, they are often unnecessary, and reinforce the notion that work could deviate wildly from sprint plans at any time. I like the analogy to a cruise ship; you can make course corrections on the scale of sprint cycles, but the ship, like your dev’s psyches, may be too big to turn on a dime. Escaping the notion of “stand-up as status report” can help managers plan more realistically, and workers feel safe in predictable work expectations. Consider incorporating automated status tracking into organization tooling, so that a developer’s normal workflow triggers updates in a board or charts visible to managers. This can help alleviate the concern that work isn’t happening, even over the distances that remote teams require.

If all else fails, Slack up!

A common solution to the woes of unfortunate stand-ups is to switch to an “async” model, where team members leave their updates in a Slack channel or other team collaboration tool, as they come online for the day. This format alleviates a lot of the pains of having to convey status to others without making awkward time demands, so is a favorite of the meeting-averse. However, this is hardly a suitable replacement. In theory, each team member is consuming everyone else’s updates, but in practice that rarely holds. The features that defined the format get lost - psychological pressure keeping updates brief and effective has vanished, the laundry list mentality gets exacerbated, and it’s way too easy to let the audience in the channel grow too large. This is often the last iteration of the meeting format before the whole exercise is scrapped as unhelpful.

Standing together as a team

Whether you’re analyzing user experience or plotting out team processes, success or failure depends greatly on how your stakeholders feel. When engineers report “feeling” burnout, often the first thing they call out is energy-sapping meetings - being held captive on camera while other people talk about irrelevant distractions. On the other hand, some teams will point to a daily meeting as the time they feel most like a single, sleek operating unit, and this carries through the rest of their day. A well-run standup can go a long way towards maintaining sanity in your schedule, realistic expectations of your peers, and predictable synergy on your team. Invest in doing it right.

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