At a glance
The stand-up meeting – or “scrum” as it is sometimes called – is intended to be a quick check-in and update between team members. A meeting on your feet is less comfortable than a sit-down affair, and it encourages everyone to be focused and to the point.
The software industry began widely adopting stand-ups as part of an agile methodology style of project management, but their roots go deeper, to manufacturing and factory settings, where people gathered around a whiteboard and seating wasn’t a priority. Over the past decade, stand-ups have become a regular feature in many other industries and professions.
“The purpose of stand-ups is to bring people together to discuss what needs to be addressed that day and move on. To check-in and update,” says strategic consultant Amanda Rose.
Donna McGeorge, corporate coach and speaker, agrees – when it comes to stand-ups, purpose trumps everything.
“If you’re going to arrange a stand-up, ask yourself why you are doing it. The stand-up is highly operational – it’s not strategic or tactical, and it can save you a bunch of emails and time,” says McGeorge.
Stand on ceremony
Known for its short, agile meetings, Australian software company Atlassian describes stand-ups as one “ceremony” among several meeting types, not to be used in isolation, but as a way of empowering teams and driving progress.
By asking everyone three questions – “What did I complete yesterday?”, “What will I be working on today?” and “Am I blocked by anything?”, Atlassian says there is implicit accountability and visibility on progress.
Keeping track of that progress is best served by someone allocated to take notes to be widely distributed afterwards, so that everyone is in the loop.
McGeorge offers the example of one corporation that holds its leadership stand-ups in an open-plan office, among the other staff.
“People could listen to what the leadership team was talking about. Each person had one minute, and the purpose was to get everyone updated. It worked.”
Tailor to fit
A stand-up should not be a one-size-fits-all meeting. It should be focused and short, but also light and fun, as well as tailored to the culture of the organisation.
In typical “new tech” culture, Atlassian suggests using timers or tossing a ball around a (standing) group, to make sure everyone is alert and paying attention.
Nor is it necessary for everyone who attends a stand-up to contribute to it. “Essentially, it’s an FYI for a lot of people – 30 may be there to learn, but only three people may need to talk,” says Rose.
While physically standing up is ideal and helps to focus minds, stand-ups don’t have to be conducted in person. In a remote or hybrid working environment, a morning conference call can be just as succinct and motivating, if handled well.
This is where having a firm hand on the tiller is all-important, says Rose. “Every stand-up meeting needs to have a leader who knows how to keep them short, sweet and productive, and can prevent them being hijacked and veering off course.
“If someone introduces an issue that should be dealt with elsewhere, or rambles on, the leader needs to remind everyone of the focus of the meeting and say, ‘Let’s schedule some time to talk about this afterwards’ or, ‘That’s not relevant to this meeting’,” says Rose.
Staying on purpose
Where stand-ups fail, it is often because they are being used for the wrong purpose.
“It’s not a town hall,” says McGeorge. “If we want everyone to hear a particular message, other kinds of meetings serve that purpose.
“Occasionally, there are managers who feel they have the right to invite a cast of thousands to meetings. Or there are employees who feel entitled to have a say in everything – and, in some organisations, your level of visibility determines the way you are valued. But, in terms of efficacy, these approaches may not be very effective.”
A stand-up should last between five and 15 minutes, no more, says McGeorge, and if you need to use a timer to make sure the meeting doesn’t go over time, then use one. “It teaches people to be succinct. They can only do what they are allowed to get away with.”
It is tempting, particularly since the pandemic has denied so many of us face-to-face interaction for so long, to use meetings as a place for socialising. However, to keep your stand-ups productive, you must resist, says Rose.
“So much time and energy are wasted in meetings that we either don’t need to have or go on for too long,” she says. “Let’s not forget it’s a job, and let’s keep productivity at a high.”