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Standup Meetings: When Team Members Work Worlds Away

Chris_Thompson Absent Member.
Absent Member.
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Probably one of the first things that grabbed your attention when you learned about Agile development is the notion of standup meetings. Standups are brief, daily status meetings in which team members bring each other up to speed on what they've completed since the last meeting and what they plan to complete before the next meeting. These are brief, structured meetings with no room for extraneous discussion. They are in fact so brief that participants are discouraged from sitting. The thinking is that by the end of the meeting attendees will be eager to return to their desks, sit down, and resume work. One could imagine the perfect meeting room being cramped, stripped of all furniture, with nothing interesting to look at on the walls, not even a window. Windows offer the triple threat of attracting distracted minds, offering just enough horizontal space to lean on, and when things go badly, ledges to jump from.

But what happens when a sizable portion of your team works a world away? Increasingly project team members live on the other side of the world from us. They're tucking their children into bed for the night just as we’re making our morning coffee. Agile puritanicalism is simply not an option for such work environments. Your team members don't all arrive at the office each morning promptly at 8:00 AM just in time for standup, then spend the day working together in one large room, and leave together at 5:00 PM. Working environments are seldom so clearly defined these days.

By all means schedule your standups for a mutually convenient time. It's not fair to have a Pacific coast colleague up at 5:00 AM each morning just so that East coast colleagues can start their day with 8:00 AM standup.

However while the physical and temporal characteristics of your standups may vary to accommodate remote teammates, you can still ensure that your standups are effective. 

Slippery slope #1: If you reschedule your meetings once, people will expect you to reschedule them again.

Predictability is a big factor here. It makes little difference whether your standups are held at 8:00 AM, 12:00 PM, or 5:00 PM. However, once you’ve settled on a meeting time, stick to it. Forces both inside and outside of your team will encourage you to move your meetings to accommodate other activities. However if you pick a meeting time and stick with it, you'll be amazed at how quickly others will respect your team’s schedule and work around it.

Slippery-slope #2: If you accept one excuse for an attendee missing standup, expect to hear lots more excuses.

Standups need to be held every workday and attended by all teammates who are working that day. No one should feel compelled to call in if they're off sick or on vacation, but the "I'm working on a deadline" excuse can become epidemic if left unchecked.

Slippery slope #3: If you allow meetings to wander off topic, expect lots of future off-topic discussions.

So, your partially-virtual team is assembled via phone, Skype, and in person. You’re ready to start your standup. What do people talk about in these meetings? If left unchecked, they’ll talk about anything and everything. It's the scrummaster’s job to manage these meetings and keep them on agenda. Meetings need to be short, sweet, and succinct. Participants will appreciate your keeping a tight rein on meetings. they may not be literally standing up with aching legs, but they will appreciate your respect of their time and they will reciprocate in the future.

Each person should take a minute to relate whatever successes or problems they've encountered in the past 24 hours and layout their plans for the next 24 hours. Other attendees are encouraged to add relevant detail and report recent news, but extraneous discussion needs to be pushed offline.

There are lots more rules for managing standup meetings, but these are the basic and I believe most essential guidelines. What other guidelines have you found to be helpful?

Looking forward to hearing your suggestions.

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