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Four Steps to a Daily Scrum That Doesn't Suck

In the years since they became a common habit, Daily Scrums have transformed from quick team huddles into long-winded status updates for management. In that transformation, these meetings have lost their way, and their use. Most developers have come to hate the daily ritual because it's a distraction instead of a booster to the day's productivity. Too many Daily Scrums just plain suck.

However, Daily Scrums are still incredibly common: 85% of agile teams hold a daily standup meeting. That's an enormous waste.

To get Daily Scrums back on track, managers need to let teams return to the meeting's purpose: a short gathering to solve problems, accelerate work progress, and boost motivation.

1. Return to the Daily Scrum's fundamentals

The Daily Scrum's purpose is to keep the team focused on the Sprint Goal and reduce the need for other meetings. During the daily get-together, the team can exchange information about their work, make adjustments to their plans, and engage in quick problem-solving.

The inventor of the Scrum framework, Jeff Sutherland, compares the Daily Scrum to a sports team huddling before a match, which is why it's sometimes referred to as the Daily Huddle. "The idea is for the team to quickly confer on how to move toward victory—i.e., complete the Sprint." Like in sports, the team should leave the huddle feeling energized and clear on strategy and tactics for the day's "match."Daily Scrums should be like team huddles Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

To get back to the basics:

  • Hold the meeting every working day of the Sprint at the same time and place: That makes it a quick ritual, rather than a daunting experience.
  • Keep the meeting short: Because it happens daily, the meeting should be short. Officially, according to the Scrum Guide, just 15-minutes long. Most teams stand up during the Daily Scrum to keep it short, so many people refer to it as the daily standup meeting.

Contrary to previous versions of the Scrum Guide, the 2020 edition doesn't prescribe three questions to ask during the meeting anymore:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any blockers or impediments preventing you from doing your work?

Instead, it says: "The Daily Scrum is a 15-minute event for the Developers of the Scrum Team. ... The Developers can select whatever structure and techniques they want, as long as their Daily Scrum focuses on progress toward the Sprint Goal and produces an actionable plan for the next day of work."

By going back to the few fundamentals that make a Daily Scrum distinct, and getting rid of the other dogma, you can refocus the meeting and get back to a more useful practice.

2. Set limits and challenges to keep the pace

Most developers who hate the Daily Scrum—and there are many—will tell you the meeting goes on for too long, too often. When you do find development teams who like the daily meeting, it's because they keep them short.
Keeping Daily Scrums short is key to effective meetings
The solution to unsucking your daily standups then is straightforward: timebox them to 15 minutes.

For smaller teams, this can be relatively easy. Make sure you have a timer, and everyone indeed stands up, even when you're all working from home or different locations.

You might also give participants a way to signal when someone is rambling or discussing topics not related to other people's work in any way. Some teams employ "buzzers, hold up rubber rats (to indicate someone is 'going down a rat hole'), or even use an Elmo doll, indicating 'Enough Let’s Move On.'"Find non-verbal cues to let someone know they're going a bit long in their Daily Scrum updateIf standing up doesn't keep things moving, here are two challenges to make going on for too long just a bit more painful:

  • ☕️ Remove coffee: implement a "no coffee" rule—people can't enjoy their coffee until the meeting is over.
  • 🏋🏿‍♀️ Add some weight: let the person speaking hold a small medicine ball or dumbbell in front of them. If team mates aren’t all in the same office, consider giving each person or group their very own medicine ball for this.

Larger teams might find the 15-minute limit hard to maintain. Instead of just timing the meeting, time individual updates too and keep them within one or two minutes.

Another limitation to try out is setting a maximum number of user stories, issues, and tickets that one person can speak about.

3. Let the team own the Daily Scrum meeting, not managers

The daily meeting should serve developers to help progress their work. When managers use it to replace their one-on-ones and get status updates, it ceases to serve developers.

To avoid this from happening, the Scrum Master, Product Owner, or project manager should not be the meeting facilitator. Instead, it should be a team member, and, ideally, the role rotates every day or week. Scrum trainer Mirko Perkusich sums it up: "The Scrum Master's only responsibility regarding the Daily Scrum is to make sure that it happens and to teach the team to conduct if [sic] effectively. ... The faster the Scrum Master's presence during Daily Scrums becomes useless, the better he did his job!"

Regardless of who facilitates the meeting, participants should vote with their feet and not show up when the Daily Scrum becomes a useless status meeting.Attendance at Daily Scrum meetings is a signal as to how useful the team finds themAttendance is a powerful signal of the meeting's usefulness. Still, it can't be an excuse for staying in bed longer or not doing your work. Instead, it should be an indicator in a recurring monthly or quarterly retrospective process to continuously improve the meeting. The meeting participants own this process—and hence the meeting—not the Scrum Master, Product Owner, or other stakeholders.

4. Iterate, so the daily standup works for everyone

Besides keeping the Daily Scrum short and holding it at the same time and place every day, the Scrum Guide gives no template or other prescriptions on how to run your daily meeting. So forget the dogma and be agile about this meeting by continuously iterating on its planning and execution.

Modify the questions or prompts used in your Daily Scrum

The three questions everyone thinks are mandatory make for a good starting point for scrutiny. They're not required, so you can adjust them as you please. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Remove "What did you do yesterday?" to reduce the inclination for giving status updates. Instead, people can answer this question asynchronously.
  • Report blockers in advance—by message or on a dedicated "improvement board"—so you have more synchronous time for other topics.
  • Replace the broad "What's changed?" with a more specific question to create focus, like "What are your two to three highlights from yesterday?"

Change when the standup happens during a workday

Another Scrum mantra is to start the day with the daily standup. Often, this means the meeting is too early for some and too late for others, disrupting productive work cycles. As Perkusich explains: "The people that arrive at 8h00 will check e-mail, talk, read news or social network, waiting for the meeting. Or, if they start working, they will feel disturbed to have to stop what they are doing because of the meeting."

Instead, consider holding the Daily Scrum just before lunch. This is a natural break in the day, so it doesn't disrupt your team's deep work. The prospect of lunch also gives everyone another reason to keep the meeting short. And team members who want to go in-depth on a topic can grab lunch together afterward. 🍽️
Shift the time of your Daily Scrum to optimize your day

Focus Daily Scrums on work in progress, rather than on individuals

Finally, to shift the focus of the meeting to completing the sprint goal, make it about the work instead of the people. Talk through sprint backlog items on the task board in order of importance or the status of completion, and let people comment on those items. This means one person might speak several times during a meeting instead of just once.

A Daily Scrum motivates teams and strengthens sprints

Daily Scrums can energize your team and form the glue between the other Scrum events—sprint planning, reviews, and retrospectives. When done right, they do become the equivalent of a sports team huddling before a match. Members walk out of it ready to kick ass and know what to do. In the words of Scrum founder Jeff Sutherland: "I want aggressive teams—ones that come out of the daily meeting knowing the most important thing they need to accomplish that day. ... I want teams emerging from that meeting saying things like, 'Let’s nail this. Let’s do this.' The team needs to want to be great."

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Tim Metz

Tim Metz crafts content at Animalz for the world's most amazing startups. He's passionate about deep work and balancing work-life.

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