Stories and the Tedium of Daily Standups

In “Tools, Iterations, and Stories,” I talked about how you should “focus on implementing and completing stories, not iterations. If your iteration is 10 days, and you have 10 stories of 1 point each, you should have delivered one story by the end of the first day, and two stories by the end of the second day, and so on.”

Today I helped deliver training on agile estimation and planning. One topic that arose was the daily stand up. We quickly surmised, no surprise, that this group’s experiences with daily standups were negative. We discussed some of the reasons why these meetings might be so poorly received. As typical, their standup meetings went on much longer than 5-10 minutes. Reasons? Also typical: people didn’t literally stand up, the meetings lacked focus, and people tried to use them to solve problems instead of just identify them. Most people, rightly so, viewed these meetings as very costly.

In response, we talked about why daily standups might be useful. We discussed the importance of getting the entire team to communicate more frequently. Daily should be a bare minimum!

The other part of our discussion was around what should be said during a standup. One of the complaints was that the standups were boring and tedious. The teams were using the typically recommended elements: what did I accomplish, what am I working on, what might I need help with? You know the drill.

Then it struck me: a focus on completing iterations, not stories, was part of the problem, contributing to the tedium.

The classic mistake in an initial stab at doing agile is to treat each iteration as a mini-waterfall. Spend a day discussing requirements, spend a day or two on design, code it, then test it, then integrate it. A team will open most of its stories on day one, and on the last day of the iteration, most of these same stories will still be open. The team will struggle to close them out prior to iteration end. The article I wrote (see link above) talks about a better approach: initiate work on one or two stories, and move on only after these stories are completed. That allows for incremental delivery of business value throughout the iteration, and usually minimizes the amount of work at risk for the iteration.

A team following the first approach, where an iteration is a mini-waterfall, will have very little useful information to say during a daily standup:

  • “What did you work on yesterday?”
  • “The flim flam widget.”
  • “Is it going ok?”
  • “Sure, I guess so.”
  • “What are you doing today?”
  • “Same thing as yesterday. Probably tomorrow, too.”

Zzzz. The daily standup is drudgery, because not much is changing, and none of the information is reliable anyway. When asked where they’re at, a developer uses the old 80/20 rule. Week one in a two-week iteration, they’re probably 20% done, and week two, they’re 80% done. And during week one, most developers have the confidence that they’ll be done in time, even if they’re stumbling. We won’t find out that there are real problems with their commitment until (too) late in week two.

In contrast, here’s how a standup might go in a team that looks to complete stories, not iterations:

  • “What did you work on yesterday?”
  • Joe: “I started on the frizzbang story.”
  • “That’s supposed to be done sometime today, right? Are you on target?”
  • “Well, maybe not, I’m stuck on a strange exception. I could use help from someone who’s worked in this area.”
  • Jane: “OK, well, I helped complete the flim flam widget by finishing the GUI component, so I’m available.”
  • “So the flim flam is ready for testing?”
  • “Yup. Today I’ll go work with Joe, before I start on the festivus tool.”

The more I do agile, the more I find that a primary focus on (really) completing stories is the best path to success.

 

Comments:

I found out, that most of the time it happens this way, as people – who drive the stand-ups – create an impression what’s important and those who participate pick it up quickly and react according to the expectation. I have met few project managers, who are focused on delivering a real value, but instead are focused on detailed control.

But today I’ve heard one of the most stupid idea for daily stand-up. It was to divide the story into tasks and each day mark amount of percentage completed, so people could then present between each other their progress on daily stand-ups. This “thing” meant to focus people on completing their work.
Guess what ? The idea came out from the tool that draws the chart based on the amount of percentage completed.

Nice.

When I was talking about this with a group of people yesterday, one woman asked, “Isn’t this going to make all that task level tracking we do difficult?” Apparently they are putting all the tasks (which to them were “analysis,” “design,” “coding,” … all to be handed off from one person to the next) into their tracking tool.

I suggested that perhaps they wouldn’t feel compelled to track at that level if they could all just work together on a story or two and get them delivered every couple of days or so.

I repeated myself. I’m not positive it sank in even the second time. We’ll see. I could smell some fear in the room.

The more I hear such stories the more I’m convinced there’s little trust in people and the focus is on a tasks/iterations not stories.

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