Ever since Jeff Sutherland and Keith Schwebel presented their seminal paper on Scrum at the OOPSLA conference back in 1995, people have been trying to figure out how to run effective daily team meetings. Whether you call them standups, scrums, or huddles, these daily gatherings all face the same challenges.

And after almost a decade of coaching teams on Lean/Agile practices, I've seen my share of failures. The fact is every team I've ever coached--be it the highest level leadership team or a more junior development team--have all struggled with getting the daily team meeting right.

The daily team meeting is short, but it's extremely important. It's where the course is constantly monitored and corrected. Teams who are misaligned and don't continuously coordinate actions, run the risk of severe failure in performance over time. Checking in and making small corrections is the key to keeping projects and teams on target.

Over the years, I've seen several common problems and have developed simple solutions. Here are some suggestions you can apply tomorrow at your meeting to improve its effectiveness.

Start at an odd time

I've found that many organizations are lazy with their meetings. When someone schedules a 9:00 a.m. meeting, people will stroll in 9:05 without a second thought. Then people wait until 9:10 to actually get going on the agenda. For daily meetings, this is a killer. These get-togethers need to be no more than 15 minutes.

To break people's bad meeting habits, use an irregular start time. If you're thinking of 9:00 am daily meeting, make it 9:04 or 9:07. This will call attention to the time and encourage people to be there at the appointed minute. A few minutes after the hour also gives people a little buffer if their previous meeting finishes at 9:00.

Have everyone write down their updates

Nothing kills a standup faster than watching someone stare at the ceiling trying to remember what they did yesterday while everyone watches them scratch their chin. This will frustrate even the most patient of team members.

Avoid wasting the team's time by having everyone write down their updates on a notecard before the meeting. Have a stack of 3x5 index cards handy for people to scratch a few notes before things kick off. At the beginning of the meeting, instruct people to show their notes and only let people speak who have taken the time to organize their thoughts. Being skipped during updates will quickly change behavior.

Set a timer everyone can see

Everyone will naturally elaborate and want to dive into details. While some people understand the advantage of setting a timer, most teams have someone set a watch timer and then say something when the time is up. This leads to people being cut off or forced to quickly wrap up and cut out important information.

Instead, use a large, visible timer that everyone can see. I've had teams use big LED timers like in my local Crossfit box. The big red numbers counting down show everyone exactly how much time is left. Additionally, utilizing the buzz or beep feature on the clock avoids someone having to be the bad guy and interrupt the person currently speaking.

Stay focused on the three core questions

Rambling is a typical challenge. It's natural and, left unchecked, will continue to happen. The daily meeting is about coordinating and identifying issues. It's not for digging in. Delving into details is not part of the daily meeting and wastes the valuable time.

The fix to this, keep everyone to the three core questions: what did you get done yesterday, what are you doing today, and what's in your way. By sticking to these and keeping answers quick, you'll avoid the pull of the tall grass. If you hear someone going into the thicket, call it out and suggest that it be a follow up conversation right after the meeting. A good practice is to schedule another 15 minutes after the standup for those people that need time and space to dig into something. Let everyone else leave on time.

End on time, no matter what

Many teams who start doing standups spend way too much time in them. I've heard of new standups lasting 30 or even 60 minutes. At the end of the meeting, they all agree that they need to make it shorter. Then the next day it takes just as long, sometimes longer.

Instead, I suggest teams agree to a 15-minute guarantee. Set a 15-minute timer for the meeting, then when the timer goes off, the meeting is automatically and immediately over--no matter what. Even if someone is mid-sentence, end the meeting and thank everyone for coming. By promising to end the meeting in 15 minutes, people are more likely to attend the next one. The next time the team meets, everyone is acutely aware of the time and keeps everyone on task and on point. The challenge becomes getting the most out of the 15 minutes rather than trying to shorten an overly long meeting.

Daily team meetings are not easy, and teams that do them well have worked hard on perfecting the process and the timing of the agenda. By following these suggestions, you'll avoid the common pitfalls and get better, faster.

Published on: Mar 22, 2017