Agile software development and the cornerstone practice of daily standups have been around for over two decades.
Yet, we’re quick to consider our tech, from laptops to enterprise software, outdated after just a few years.
Why don’t we hold Agile practices to the same standard of scrutiny?
If a three-year-old smartphone can seem archaic, isn’t it fair to reassess our twenty-year-old Agile methods?
It’s not just our shiny new tools that warrant evaluation. We have to be critical of all of our established practices. Daily standups are one of those.
The daily standup rhythm
In a traditional daily standup, development teams come together, typically for a 15-minute huddle, sharing updates, plans, and hurdles. They are meant to foster a sense of shared responsibility, camaraderie, and open dialogue.
But is it always productive?
How often do we see these sessions morph into problem-solving marathons or narratives that veered off course?
First, the bad — some problems with standups today
I’m lucky to interact with developers all the time, both professionally and in my personal life. The reality of daily standups seems to differ widely, but I notice that all too often, people tell me that the reality of what actually happens at the daily scrum isn’t useful, concise or what they’re intended for in the first place.
- Problem 1 — lack of discipline. Standups are meant to be succinct, but they can often devolve into long-winded discussions or problem-solving sessions, detracting from their primary purpose.
- Problem 2 — mixed quality of content. Team members may discuss items that aren’t pertinent to the entire group, wasting time and diluting the standup’s focus.
- Problem 3 — scheduling. Coordinating a standup that suits everyone’s schedules, especially in distributed / remote teams, is tough. It can lead to inconvenience or exclusion — think about those with nursery runs or caring responsibilities. Even if this doesn’t apply right now, our practices should be inclusive by default.
- Problem 4 — lack of records. Traditional standups typically don’t include a formal method of documenting the discussion, making it difficult to refer back to the information.
- Problem 5 — human fallibility. Standups often require team members to recall their tasks and progress off the top of their heads. Traditional standups are based on personal narratives, which can be skewed by individual perceptions and biases. This could lead to a distorted understanding of project progress and challenges.
- Problem 6 — tiresome. Some people just find them draining, a source of burnout, or just — frankly — boring.
Let’s not toss out the baby with the bathwater. Traditional standups have undeniable merits. So what do we want to keep?
- Strength 1 — Structure. Daily standups provide a consistent routine, anchoring the workday and offering a clear structure many team members appreciate.
- Strength 2 — Alignment. These short meetings are designed to keep everyone on the same page, fostering team alignment and ensuring that everyone is aware of the overall project progress. Whatever solution we have must achieve this.
- Strength 3 — Issue surfacing. Standups can help surface issues promptly. This timely identification allows the team to address problems before they escalate.
- Strength 4 — Building camaraderie. Despite the potential for monotony, daily standups help people bond, understand one another and feel connected. The regular interaction helps build relationships and encourages a cooperative spirit.
So, when we’re assessing our options, I’m going to have all of these points in mind. Do the alternatives really solve the problems? If so, which ones? Do we lose out on some of the strengths of traditional daily standups?
And is there some more nuanced thinking we need to do about some of these?
So, do daily standup tools solve the problems?
If you’re here, you probably know about daily standup alternatives already. Just in case, let me summarise.
A daily standup tool is a digital platform that facilitates asynchronous daily standups.
They gather a summary from each team member every day and post it in a shared channel, for example, in a bespoke web interface or in a tool you already use, like asynchronous standups in Slack and Microsoft Teams. They’re meant to support flexibility and productivity within distributed teams.
There are a bunch of these tools on the market, including the likes of Geekbot, Jell and Standuply.
Where they do well
- Saves time, forces concision. I don’t know a team who uses daily standup software who doesn’t say this is a time-saver. They don’t have to battle with over-running standups that get out of hand and off-topic.
- Flexibility and inclusion. They accommodate different schedules and time zones, so everybody can participate, regardless of location or availability. Tools like Standuply even allow you to record by video, if you want, though you lose some of the brevity and uniformity.
- Record keeping. Revisit past discussions and decisions whenever needed, and integrate with other tools, if you like.
- Structural discipline. Daily scrum tools enforce the structure of answers, encouraging concise, specific contributions.
Where they do badly?
- Less personal interaction. Traditional standups offer more face-to-face time, whether in-person or virtually.
- Less scope for problem-solving. When you work async, discussion doesn’t happen so naturally and can end up being more time-consuming.
I see the point here, but are daily standups really the ideal forum for relationship-building? Remember, a traditional daily standup is a 15-minute session focussed on brevity, with a rigid structure.
The daily scrum has never been the right arena for deep collaboration or intricate problem-solving.
These huddles are designed for quick alignment, brief status updates, and swift identification of obstacles. When standups start to spiral into lengthy debates or problem-solving sessions, they lose their agility and efficiency — ironically betraying the very principle they were founded upon.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Deep collaboration is crucial in Agile development — it’s just that daily standups aren’t the right place for it. Each agile ritual, from sprint planning to pair programming, has a distinct purpose and should be treated as such.
My suggestion is that the daily standup should surface the activity and blockers, and that anything that warrants further discussion or problem-solving should be arranged separately.
Let’s not pretend standup tools are perfect. A couple of problems persist.
- Human fallibility. Standups often require team members to recall their tasks and progress off the top of their heads. Traditional standups are based on personal narratives, which can be skewed by individual perceptions and biases. This could lead to a distorted understanding of project progress and challenges.
- Irrelevance. Not everything shared is going to matter to everyone, or matter in the context of team or company goals.
A different solution, fit for the future of engineering?
So, the daily standup has weaknesses, even when using a daily standup tool.
The truth is that humans simply don’t always surface the right stuff, such as important decisions that have been made or risks we’ve spotted.
That’s often a matter of perspective, as well as natural limitations of memory. We also, by nature, present our ideas through a lens of bias.
The challenge lies in efficiently extracting what really matters.
This problem is more pronounced in larger teams where the complexity of tasks, projects, and dependencies can be overwhelming. As a result, many hours that could be used productively are spent sifting through status updates and reports.
So, what’s the ideal solution?
That’s precisely what I’m building with my team.
I imagined an AI engine that observes and reflects on everything that happens under the surface of all the tools you use, in the context of team and company goals.
It uses this to gather the most relevant information and generate bespoke reports, sharing what matters to the recipients.
That means you can automatically generate recurring daily reports for your engineering team — or any other kind of report you can imagine, from a personal feed tailored to exactly what you care about, to executive summaries.
But what about personal input? We’ve built it so that you can edit or add each update, if you want to do that.
Not only does this streamline the entire process of daily standups, but it also facilitates unrivalled collaboration, eliminates information silos, and provides total visibility into what matters most. I’d love for you to check out Stepsize AI.
We have to evolve traditional Agile methodologies, including daily standups.
Traditional practices emphasise team alignment and camaraderie, while digital standup tools leverage technology for efficiency and inclusion.
But neither fully addresses some of the challenges that arise from human limitations.
The solution lies in leveraging new tech — artificial intelligence — that was the stuff of science fiction when the agile manifesto was written.