Different engineering teams function in different ways. Each employ various strategies and processes, informed and shaped by changing technologies, markets, personnel, competitive landscapes, and company culture.
But one ritual — the daily stand-up — has become particularly popular with engineering teams around the world. The format is remarkably similar in every organization; teams get together for a short amount of time and run through what each person did yesterday, what they’re working on today, and anything that’s blocking them.
But engineer Dan Pupius, Co-founder and CEO at Range, and the former Head of Engineering at Medium, holds that teams can get much more value out of the daily stand-up. As with any process, strategy, or team structure, it should be approached thoughtfully and tailored to fit the team’s specific needs.
At their core, Dan says, stand-ups are intended to allow teammates to develop a shared understanding, coordinate efforts, and collaborate on problems. However, many teams are made up of individuals operating on their own: their work streams are linear and don’t overlap with other team members’ work, and there are few opportunities to really collaborate on solutions together. On these teams, stand-ups become mechanisms for sharing status updates.
“Status updates are a very transactional form of communication and don’t need to happen synchronously in person,” he acknowledges.
But with Range, Dan is not trying to replace the stand-up. He’s seen first hand how powerful stand-ups can be for a team’s sense of alignment and their ability to execute. Rather, he’s trying to make them even more valuable for each team member, whether they’re onsite or remote, individual contributors or managers. He sees an opportunity to replace that transactional communication with inclusive, impactful collaborative time. Here, Dan delves into how he’s rethinking the stand-up for deeper discussion, including:
why worthwhile meetings must offer value to the engineers in them
how building an agenda in rounds gets everyone more involved while building trust between them
how to keep stand-ups continuously adapting to a team’s evolving needs
Everyone in the meeting should get value out of the meeting
Dan acknowledges building a team of the right people who work well together, and are also making significant progress relative to expectations, is hard work. And it gets even more challenging to maintain as the environments in our organizations become increasingly complex.
“My job as a manager is to create an environment for success by building culture and setting up processes that make the team’s work easier. My job often isn’t to participate in the work itself,” he says. “To help teams be successful I need to pay attention to their needs: work needs, safety needs, emotional and flexibility needs.”
So when it comes to stand-ups, again, Dan doesn’t see a daily ‘status update’ as a useful way of spending the team’s valuable in-person time. Instead, he orients stand-ups to become a facilitated conversation where developers can have deeper discussions around specific problems, experiences, or decisions.
When team members can unblock problems, learn from peers, or get social recognition from the team, they walk away with a better experience — a deeper sense of trust and connection with their teammates.
“When you solve problems as a group, you benefit from each other’s experience and perspectives,” he says. “Plus, these interactions become moments for learning. When managers act like traffic-cops, routing information and resolving issues autocratically, it undermines the team’s potential.”
Stand-ups are productive team-building events
In practice, yes, managers need frequent check-ins from their team members. They need to know what’s happening and how things are going on a daily basis. Dan recommends facilitating these check-ins outside of the valuable in-person time. Then he suggests integrating important topics brought up in these check-ins into the team-wide stand-up, to facilitate knowledge sharing and build camaraderie.
“I’m not just sharing with my manager that way; I’m sharing with my team,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like I’m just reporting up. It feels like I’m contributing to a group effort.”
The team connection piece is incredibly valuable here. Once the updates are shared with the team, everyone has the chance to thank each other, give each other props and respect, or offer timely feedback.
“It’s amazing how impactful receiving social feedback from the team your work supports can be,” says Dan. “The behavior is sharing the update, and the reward is a stronger team. In person, all of this happens implicitly and through informal social cues.”
Using “flags” to be more efficient
During stand-ups, Dan pulls out what he calls “flags” from the check-ins. These are anything stemming from a check-in that asks for action, whether that be a thank you, a celebration, an FYI, or a notice that someone is blocked. Those, then, become the discussion points for the team.
He finds that pulling flags for the stand-up is more useful than reviewing everyone’s check-ins in full. “If none of our work is overlapping, I may not need to look at your work,” he says. “But having these flags in a standup can help team members be aware of when other team members are working on something that they need to know about, or would find valuable to learn about.”
And not diving into the work called out by every flag is fine—there’s always a record of it because of the regular check-ins.
Stand-ups allow team members—and managers—to push the information to the people who need it. The team stays close-knit by meeting regularly. And the developers who are collaborating closely can always get more value by reading more of each other’s check-ins than they cover in the stand-up.
Building discussion in rounds creates space for everyone to participate
While Dan is in favor of skipping status updates when possible, he emphasizes that meetings are important. He recommends that regular team meetings use recurring agendas, one that includes looking at flagged items, while retaining a section that is built dynamically in each stand-up.
“The purpose of our stand-ups is collaboration,” he says. “We actually call it ‘collab time.’ I recommend naming meetings based on the purpose or outcome you’re driving vs. basing it off of the attendees or format.”
He shared some of the tactics he uses to make the meeting efficient and valuable for the team.
The check-in round
The first tactic is what Range calls the check-in round. It can be an ice-breaker question (such as one of these 200 used at Range), or simply people sharing what’s on their mind. Whatever the topic of discussion, the act of going around the team levels the playing field—everyone has already spoken up once, and research shows that underrepresented groups are more likely to speak up if they speak up earlier in the meeting.
“Plus, it helps us as humans,” Dan says. “It helps us empathize with each other and provides a more accurate lens through which we interpret each other’s actions and behavior during a meeting. If we come in cold and start talking and then you're a little bit short with me, I may interpret that as you being upset with me, but maybe it's just that you're super tired because you were up all night with a sick child. The check-in round sets a really important foundation for the rest of the meeting.”
Build a round-robin agenda
The second tactic is a round (or multiple rounds) of building an agenda. Again, every person must speak each time around—and if they don’t want to add anything, they still have to vocalize their “pass.”
“Ask, what topics do you want to discuss?” Pupius says. “We have the flags, but we have open agenda building, too.”
He finds that people may pass on the first or second round of round-robin agenda-building, but by subsequent rounds they remember or choose to bring things up for discussion. Going around multiple times allows team members to build confidence to speak up, as well as giving them multiple chances—whereas a quick “What topics are we going to discuss?” is likely to raise only the most urgent ideas, or those ideas from the most confident people in the room.
“It creates space for people who aren’t as confident or don’t have as much social presence,” he says.
Keep discussion relevant — to everyone
One of the keys to keeping everyone engaged and included in a stand-up is to keep the stand-up relevant to them. Range’s stand-ups, in this sense, are ideal for small teams, because these meetings are only useful if they’re actively collaborating together (at least for the duration of the meeting, if not beyond).
“All the discussions should be relevant to everyone,” he says, “and if there is a discussion that's not relevant to everyone then, yeah, those people should connect offline.”
Figuring out the right duration and frequency for the work and personalities of a given team is also critical. Some teams meet daily for fifteen minutes; Range developers meet twice a week for an hour. Whatever the schedule is, it should permit an intentional time for collaboration.
“What's great about that is it reduces informal collaboration outside of that meeting,” Dan explains. “Creating space where to encourage collaboration is essentially an inclusiveness practice. It forces you to have conversations or discussions in a formal setting where everyone can benefit from it. It's not to say that you shouldn't have your informal communication; it's just that by making a space for formal communication, everyone can benefit from it, and it balances the information flow.”
Constantly evolve to suit the team
As mentioned above, Dan meets with his teams for an hour twice a week. He didn’t land on that schedule randomly. In part, it suited his availability as both CEO and a member of the product team. But more than that, his team found that that cadence suited their workflow.
“We’d work for a couple of days, and then we’d have stuff we wanted to bring to the group,” he says. “I think this is where you have to sense and react depending on the type of work you're doing or the type of team you have, how junior, how senior, how distributed, how mature the product is. You might want to do it daily for fifteen minutes, once a week for two hours. Actually, that might be crazy; don't do that.”
In other words, the way teams do stand-ups isn’t prescribed, and it certainly isn’t set in stone. It evolves. Constantly.
In fact, the team offers Dan feedback on how stand-up meetings are working—as part of the stand-up meeting.
“We’re constantly sensing friction and opportunity in our team,” he explains. “If someone is struggling to make the meeting, then you need to move it. Or if these discussions are running on too long, then maybe you need to split it into two so that different people go to two different ones. Figure out what could be better or what's causing problems, and grow from there.”
“There's this cycle I see at many companies. It starts out with someone believing there are too many meetings. So they stop the meetings, but then no one knows what's happening,” Dan says. “So, they bring meetings back. They end off fluctuating between too few meetings and too many meetings, without actually solving the root problem of how to hold meetings.”
That’s why Range decided to rethink the way they hold stand-ups:
Stand-ups should have value for everyone attending. The manager’s role is to create an environment for success, rather than directing the work. That means stand-ups can be events that bolster and connect the team socially. At the same time, they also focus on “flags,” or important items for celebration or collaboration, in lieu of comprehensive (and largely irrelevant) status updates.
Building stand-up discussions as round-robins encourages everyone to participate. Range starts each stand-up with a check-in round where everyone speaks. The team then builds the agenda in multiple rounds, wherein again, everyone speaks each time—even if that is just to say “I pass.” And if discussions become irrelevant to some team members, then the discussion is moved outside the stand-up.
The stand-up format is never set in stone. It continuously evolves based on team feedback and the needs of all engineers on the team, so that it (and the team) can continue to improve.
“Hopefully this way of thinking about team organizational issues can help people create the right kind of meetings,” Dan says. “And the right kind of teams.”
You can read more from Dan Pupius on Twitter.
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