Let me start by admitting something embarrassing. When I heard “lean” and “standup” being mentioned among my company’s senior team two years ago, I thought we were about to start a new HR initiative about employee health and posture.
I was super wrong about that. (My co-workers will troll me endlessly about this when they see this article.)
What my company actually implemented was a new routine of daily 15-minute meetings called “standups,” where team members give brief updates on the following questions:
- What did you complete yesterday?
- What’s in progress for today?
- Is anything blocking you from completing something?
Each team member is standing during this meeting because that posture is thought to ensure better focus than sitting down. In theory, standups are perfect for productivity because they cut the fat of long meetings where no one pays attention and everyone is drawn away from real work. And it’s not just giving status reports. Teams identify priorities and challenges at the beginning of the day so that they can plan to remove any blockers and make sure the path for the rest of the day’s work is clear.
It makes sense that small companies influenced by “Lean Startup” thinking (tl;dr: doing more with less) experiment with standups. When you’re small and nimble, you just don’t have time for lots of overhead. At my company, Bureau Blank, we have six core teams—strategy, design, web, client services, operations, and business development—and at any given moment, we are working on up to 20 projects for 10 or more clients. Our team is also just 10 people, so we’re each occasionally wearing multiple hats. A company like ours needs something to keep everyone organized and informed.
When They Work
So, do they work? I’ve seen that standups are really helpful when…
Deadlines Are Looming
Have you ever heard that saying, “When you make a plan, God laughs?” Well, God must get a kick out of project managers trying to control time with estimates and deadlines. When those moments inevitably come where two critical deadlines collide on the same day, standups are helpful because teams look at the calendar together as they give their updates. You’re able to see the milestones coming before they arrive, and you can make plans to adjust priorities or workloads accordingly.
You Love To-Do Lists
Since we’ve been holding standups, we’ve also been using project management systems like Basecamp and JIRA. These systems allow everyone to see every box (literally) that needs to get checked before a website or logo can be delivered to a client. During standups, team members can quickly point out the tasks they’re working on, and the meeting is over in a snap.
You Want to Learn More About What Another Team Does
One of the advantages of being in a small company is that opportunities to learn are ever-present. Every team’s standup is recorded in our project management system, so I can always see how members of another department are contributing to a project I’m working on.
Here’s a possible scenario: For website development, my strategy team will conduct research into our client’s industry to look for trends and we’ll notice, for example, that more nonprofits are embracing responsive websites. When our developers start building the site, I can review their standup to see the steps that they’re taking to display the site on screens of multiple sizes and ask them to share insight with me. This is a win-win because I get to learn something new as well as show interest in my co-workers (which goes a long way for individual and company morale).
What to Watch Out For
Standups can also reveal challenges that should prompt action from teams and managers. Here’s what to look out for:
Work That’s Not Evenly Distributed or Accomplished
Standups will quickly reveal just how much work everyone has. When everyone is reporting what they’re working on, you may occasionally have team members with tasks that seem to languish “in progress.” Don’t panic or jump to conclusions that your co-worker isn’t managing his time well. Remember that “busyness” is not the goal of the standup, communication is. Whether you are his manager or colleague, work with him to understand the depth of the task. See if it’s too much for one person to handle alone or if you can help break the task down into smaller steps.
Someone Seems to Be on a Different Page
Standups are also known as “scrums,” a term that comes from the rugby formation of teams linking together to get control of the ball. At work, as in sports, if any single team member is not aligned with the goals or pulling her weight, the rest of the team suffers for it. If you’re experimenting with standups, watch for team members who seem to not pay attention when others are speaking or give vague updates about what they’re working on. It may not be that they’re disengaged. They just may not understand the context, goals, or responsibilities of what they’re working on. Make time for a one-on-one meeting to address the challenges directly.
There Isn’t Enough Work at All
Standups, like to-do lists, are built for instant gratification. When you are burning through tasks and making progress in your work, it feels awesome! But if there isn’t enough work for your company or your team, the standup can feel like lifting the same light dumbbell at the gym every day. Sure, you’re keeping the routine, but you’re not getting any stronger. Not to mention, you’re bored out of your mind. If your team’s workload is light, the standup can become an annoyance, causing team members to lose interest. Once interest is gone for a team member, productivity and commitment to the company can fade, too.
If you hit a slow period of work, consider whether you should put standups on hold and add other types of team-building activities into the mix.
Standups, like software or machines, are tools. They don’t solve problems by themselves. But they do require careful deployment and close attention to the human element to ensure that you’re creating an environment that’s open and vocal, where teams work together to get the job done.