How to use the daily standup to drive agile behaviors

Agile Management
A woman is at the front of the room leading a discussion around her team's kanban board.

Perhaps the most recognizable habit that forms after a transition to agile practices is the daily standup or scrum. If you are leading agile change in your organization, you can use the standup to influence team members to adopt agile behaviors.

When an organization adopts agile practices, it tends to adopt the mechanics rather than the underlying culture. Many existing teams are teams in name only; rather, they are a loosely coupled group of people being tasked by a team lead on an individual basis. Once they become a self-managing agile team, they tend to retreat to their independent mindsets during the standup. Even at sprint planning, the team may adopt the practice of looking through their backlog to find what each person can work on, generating a 1:1 assignment of stories to team members.

This habit is reinforced by the "three questions" paradigm that most teams adopt as the default for conducting standups. Under the "three questions" paradigm, the standup proceeds from team member to team member, each of whom answers these three questions:

  1. What did you complete yesterday?
  2. What are you working on today?
  3. Do you have any blocks or impediments?

This is a reasonable way to start conducting standups if your teams are in the early throes of transition. It provides a sense of structure to the standup and a level of consistency that lends itself to habit-forming. That said, I believe it's an anti-pattern for agile behavior that focuses too much on being busy and not enough on delivering customer value.

You see, the focus of the standup is about collaborating on a strategy to tackle the sprint goal. It's not meant to be another status meeting where everyone shares what they accomplished (i.e. question number one of the three questions). The three questions paradigm tricks people into the illusion of progress by ensuring that everyone is busy, not that they are making progress as a team towards the sprint goal.

If you have new scrum masters (or agile coaches in general) as part of the transition, this can lure them into a false sense of security as well. As long as no one on the team currently has any blocks or impediments, then there's nothing for them to do...or so they think. This usually stems from a misunderstanding that the scrum master is only responsible for clearing impediments, as opposed to clearing impediments, creating a high-trust culture, driving execution, and coaching the team on agile principles.

Instead, I coach teams to use a variation of the "work items attend" paradigm. "Work items attend" is an approach where the team members speak to the highest priority stories in the standup rather than go around the room talking about their individual tasks. Doing so moves focus from the team members' tasks to the team's stated sprint goal. This is a dramatic shift in perspective.

A kanban board with four columns: To Do, In Progress, Under Review, and Done.

Picture, if you will, a kanban board with columns representing work To Do, In Progress, Under Review, and Done. In an ideal world, the highest priority stories move through each of the columns in a cascading effect until the lowest priority stories are complete. We want to limit work in process lest we start everything but finish nothing. With this in mind, what is the best way for the work items to attend the standup?

I submit to you that the focus should be on any open stories in the Under Review column (i.e. the unresolved state furthest to the right on the kanban board). These are the stories nearest to value delivery, sitting on the cusp of benefiting the customer. We will reduce our work in process more quickly by attacking these stories first. If there are no stories in the Under Review column, then our focus shifts left to the stories In Progress.

With this, we have our paradigm for the standup:

  1. Collaborate on a strategy to close out the highest priority story in the right-most unresolved column.
  2. Proceed to lower priority stories in the column until all stories are accounted for or all team members have work.
  3. Move one column to the left, then repeat.

This works for any number of columns on the kanban board. The point is to focus on the highest priority work closest to completion. I usually encourage scrum masters to facilitate the focus from right to left to ensure the team develops a habit of targeting work in process.

So why does changing our standup paradigm help with adopting agile behaviors? Just by reframing the standup, we've encouraged the team members to act like a team and not like individuals. They are collaborating to close stories, and not just any stories: the ones that are most important.

I often quote this line from the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath: what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. In this case, we've changed the situation in order to influence behaviors. You'll find that this is much easier to pull off than getting dozens, even hundreds, of people to change direction because you said so.

Getting the team to manage itself like a team is one of the most difficult aspects of an agile transition. By taking advantage of the daily standup to set new habits, we can help drive those behaviors quickly.

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