Friday, April 3, 2015

Taking the Status out of Standups

Today was a busy coaching day on a large release train with lots of good coaching conversations.  When I got to the "warm and fuzzy moments" part of my coaching journal at the end of the day, memories of the scrum of scrums in the morning put a such a huge smile on my face that I had to come home and blog.
One of the first things I will do walking in the door as a coach is to go and 'chicken' at stand-ups. 99 times out of a hundred, they'll sound like a status report.  How can it be a self-organising team if they have a daily status report?  It's meant to be the timeout where the team gets together for a moment to work out how best to work together that day on moving towards their goal.  Often, I find the real standup happens just after the formal one.  The scrum-master walks off, and all of a sudden the team lights up and has a great conversation.    
Fixing a standup is a great place to start as a coach.  Changing that one conversation the team is guaranteed to have every day will lay a strong foundation for much of the deeper work to build on.  And I've built up quite a library of tips and tricks from conferences, blogs, colleagues and blind experiments.  The best ones always vary according to the team - I just offer a smorgasboard and encourage the team to pick one or two and try them out.

Simple Tricks for changing the dynamic

Use a talking ball

Very simple technique, takes control of who speaks when out of the hands of the scrum-master and into the hands of the team members. Also bound to get a laugh at some point as a throw goes crazy or when a team member brings in a soft toy that makes funny noises to use as the ball.  It's simple.  Last person to arrive gets thrown the ball.  They speak, then pick someone to throw it to.  Repeat until done.

Start with a soundtrack

Pick a team sound.  A favourite song, a sound-bite aligned to the team's name.  Program an alarm on a phone or a computer to play the sound at standup-time.  It's no longer the scrum-master summoning people in.

Talk to the wall 

There are a few variants on this one.  One is to have the team-member talking step up to the kanban wall and point to the cards they are talking about as they're talking.  Goes well with the talking ball as the person speaking then throws the ball out to the huddle to call the next one in.  Alternatively, have a rotation between the team members of someone to stand at the wall and walk through it from right to left calling for comment card by card.  Changes things up from the "person by person" routine.

Get out of the way

The conversation's meant to be between the team members, if they're all facing the scrum-master while they talk change it up.  They can stand behind the huddle if you're talking to the wall, or when extreme measures are called for make a moving target.  Get the scrum-master to constantly move so there are always other team members between them and the person talking.  It'll move eyelines.

Make a standup agreement

Often a good activity for a retrospective.   Have the team create an agreement listing the ingredients of a great standup.  Make it visible.  If nothing else, it'll prompt a good discussion about why the standup exists.  Many team-members just assume it's meant to be a status report.  Works really well in conjunction with red-cards.

Introduce red-cards 

This is one of my favourites.  Standups that get stuck in the weeds and drag on forever are horrible.  If the scrum-master is forever having to intervene to offline stuff it puts them far too squarely back in the centre.  Establish a stash of pink index cards (or flags or some other fun device) in the standup area and get every team member to pick one up as they arrive.  The system is simple:
  • "if you're bored or disinterested in the current conversation, hold up your card"
  • "if you agree with someone else who just held up a card, hold yours up too"
Now the team is voting conversations off the island.  They have control, the scrum-master just needs to help park it after the vote - it might be a really important conversation, just not for the whole team

Visualise your impediments

You're trying to discover impediments.  They're important.  They're half the reason to have the standup discussion.  Shame most teams just watch their scrum-master either try to memorise them or take notes while all the conversation is about the status rather than the things stopping progress.  Make an impediment radiator.  Write them up on post-it's instantly and visualise.

Stage a revolt

This one's a bit cheeky, but I've used it a few times to good effect.  Separate the team from the scrum-master.  Make sure they understand that the standup is meant to be for them not the scrum-master, then suggest they go tell the scrum-master they're taking over the standup.  Interestingly enough, the bulk of the times I've used it has been with the scrum-master's full support.  We have a discussion where they explain to me how frustrated they are with their standups.  They try a few things and nothing's working.  Then the team stages a revolt and all of a sudden it's fixed.  
You'll notice a recurring theme above - take it out of the control of the scrum-master and into the team's hands.  But these are no guarantee the right conversations will happen.  They'll almost certainly change the dynamic, but I've saved the best for last.

Change the questions

The "3 question standup" goes stale even faster than the good/bad/confused retrospective - it's used every day instead of every 2 weeks.  What's worse, the questions almost seem designed to promote a status flavour.  And of course, 99 times out of a hundred it's "no blockers" all around even for a team screaming from pain.  Change the questions, change them again.  Find the questions that create the best conversations.  I had one friend who ran for awhile with only 1 question - "What's blocking you?".  And finished the standup by filling in the blocker of the day on the team wall.   See my sample scrum of scrums questions below for some inspiration on new questions.
And .. make sure you visualise the questions.  Nothing worse than team members trying to remember what the question was.  Make a BVIR.  

Scrum of Scrums

This one's easy.  It's just a standup.  All comments above apply, they're just even more important.  Getting a good scrum of scrums going is often painful.  It's typically at more risk of being a status report than normal standups.  Also, never forget a standup is a "daily standup".   The best way to make a painful SoS is to only do it once a week.
So, back to the inspiration to sit down and write tonight.  Today's Scrum of Scrums was for a group of about 10 teams who are 2 sprints into scrum of scrums after spending 8 months without.  And it's been evolving well with some great conversations.  They were just ready for a nudge, and I suggested some new questions to try to the Release Train Engineer last night.  Then I just stood there with a big goofy coaching smile on my face this morning as the richness of the conversation ratcheted up another notch.
For more thoughts on creating a great scrum of scrums, take a look at this post by my colleague +Em Campbell-Pretty delving into visualisation.