Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about standups recently, so I’m going to try to do a more critical analysis of the pros and cons, and hopefully make a compelling argument that they’re a valuable thing to do. I’ll also cover some points on how to make them more productive.

A “standup” is a daily checkin with the members of your team that typically lasts 5-10 minutes. Traditionally everyone should be standing, hence the name “standup”, which is meant to ensure that people don’t get too comfortable and the meeting won’t go too long.

At a standup, a team of ideally no more than 6-8 people get together (usually in the morning) and go around with each person answering the following three questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What are you working on today?
  • Do you have any blockers? (In other words: Is any of your work dependent on someone else completing some task first?)

It should be short and quick. People can ask questions or provide more information, but any extended conversation should be tabled to later. The reason you don’t want more than 6–8 people involved is that otherwise it’ll go too long, and the things that are brought up won’t be relevant to most the members of the team.

So why not do a standup?

The main argument I often hear against standups is that they’re a waste of time. Often standups can go long if no one is in charge of time or it’s not managed well. Standups can balloon into 30+ minutes, and if you have more than 8 people involved, that’s at least 4 hours of cumulative employee time.

Another argument against standups is that they’re pedantic and the information shared isn’t really useful to other people on the team. People don’t like having to break down all their tasks (they don’t find the structure helpful) and having to report on what they’re doing each day (it feels overbearing). Some people also don’t like having to listen to other people list out tasks that feel irrelevant to them.

These are the most common points I hear against doing standups. Now let’s talk about the reasons for doing a standup.

As far as management tools go, standups are one of the most self-directed ways of getting people to manage their own time effectively.

As a manager, I don’t want to micro-manage the people who work for me by telling them exactly what to do and how they should do things. The ideal would be for me to give them objectives and them to decide for themselves how to meet those objectives. Standups force people to think about how to convert their objectives into concrete tasks on a daily basis. They also force people to plan out their day and decide on what is the most important task to get done that day.

In general, people are bad at setting aside time to break down big tasks into smaller tasks (i.e. planning) in a way that makes sure they’re actually aligned. For example, if you want to run a marathon, you’re going to have a really hard time unless you come up with a training schedule. Plenty of those exist online, but coming up with your own can be difficult and many people don’t do a good job.

Having a daily standup forces you to think at least once about what small tasks you might be able to accomplish that day that would help you meet your higher-level goals. It also makes it much more obvious to you and to others if you’re working on other tasks that don’t actually relate to your high level goals for too many days in a row.

Related to that is a sense of accountability. Standups use some degree of peer pressure to hold people accountable, which is a powerful force. It can be way more effective than top-down accountability. There have been plenty of standups where I’ve thought, “Shit, I’ve now mentioned this same task at standup for three days in a row. I better get it done today because I’d be embarrassed if I have to bring it up again tomorrow.” It actually works.

Another one of the biggest benefit of standups is communicating what everyone is working on with the rest of the team, which allows others to provide input, lend their expertise, ask questions, or just get updates on important dependencies.

Sometimes, two people are working on the same or related tasks at the same time but don’t realize it. Sometimes someone has already solved a problem someone else is working on, or has some important bit of information about how to do it. Because tasks between people on teams can be so dependent on one another, it can save a lot of time to just know where the other tasks are at.

In the book Turn the Ship Around, L. David Marquet talks about how he was able to turn a ship from one of the worst performing in the fleet to one of the best. One of the most important things he did was have everyone start by talking out loud what they were doing as they were doing it, which helped prevent them from making mistakes, and also communicated important information to others that they may not have even realized was important or that other people might need to know.

One of the reasons I think the “Standups are a waste of time” is such a bad argument is that the biggest time waster at most companies is poor planning. There’s an old adage that says, “Measure twice cut once.” A well run standup saves a lot of wasted time by getting people to communicate and work together more effectively.

The caveat here is that standups should be well-run. That means: keep it short. Someone should be the time keeper and ensure that the standup doesn’t go beyond 10–15 minutes, with 1–2 minutes per person.

People also need to prepare their standup updates in advance. They should be communicated in a way that is relevant to other people — i.e. eliminate confusing jargon and tiny irrelevant tasks (no one cares what meetings you were involved in). You don’t want to be listing a lot of things just to prove you get a lot of work done. Keep it to the most important 1 or 2 things you worked on yesterday and are going to work on today.

You should also be interested in and engage with other peoples’ updates. Actually listen instead of getting distracted (one of the reasons it’s important to write your own updates in advance), and ask clarifying questions if there’s anything you don’t understand.

Hopefully you’ve found this post helpful and you’re able to use some of these tips to make your team more effective.

Do you find standups to be valuable? Do you disagree with any of the points above? What are some examples of good standup practices you’ve seen? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.