Matthew Butt

Reinvigorating a daily stand-up by walking the board

Posted in programming by bnathyuw on 16 May 2016

I’ve been working with a team who had a problem with focus: when I joined them, they seemed to be busy all the time, but they were frustrated that they weren’t making progress towards their sprint goals.

This situation could be seen in microcosm at the daily stand-up meeting. In this post I’m going to describe how a simple adjustment to this meeting helped us start to improve focus, morale and productivity.

The Scrum Guide gives a template for the daily stand-up meeting (which it calls the Daily Scrum):

The Daily Scrum is held at the same time and place each day to reduce complexity. During the meeting, the Development Team members explain:

  • What did I do yesterday that helped the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?
  • What will I do today to help the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?
  • Do I see any impediment that prevents me or the Development Team from meeting the Sprint Goal?

My team was indeed practising this technique, but it seemed that they often forgot the discipline of focusing on ‘helping the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal’, and the meeting often descended into yesterday-I-diddery, with each team member recounting all the things they did the day before in trivial detail.

It seems to me that in a stand-up of this format, each team member’s incentive becomes having something to say, rather than showing progress towards the Sprint Goal, and this produces an incentive to be busy, no matter how irrelevant or frankly counterproductive the tasks might be. In this team, I saw a lot of effort spent on support tasks—whether or not the issue was pressing—, a significant amount of aimless ‘refactoring’, which was essentially yak shaving, and a tendency for team members to interrupt each other for help with lower priority work. In effect, everyone starts prioritising busy work, rather than focusing on the team’s goals.

The other consequence of this approach was that the team’s board was a poor representation of our work: people would be working on tasks that weren’t visible on the board, and the stories that were on the board often didn’t move anywhere. The Scrum Master and I tried various approaches to coordinate the board and the stand-up reports, but the focus was still lacking.

I’ve previously worked in a Kanban environment, and the format of a Kanban standup is significantly different:

Standup meetings have evolved differently with Kanban. The need to go around the room and ask the three questions is obviated by the card wall. … The focus is on flow of work. The facilitator … will “walk the board.” The convention has developed work backward—from right to left (in the direction of pull)—through the tickets on the board. The facilitator might solicit a status update on a ticket or simply ask if there is any additional information that is not on the board and may not be known to the team.

(Anderson, David J. Kanban, Successful evolutionary change for your technology business)

I suggested that we try this approach for a week, and see whether it helped give us more focus. As people were concerned that we might lose sight of important work, we agreed that we would walk the board first, and then run quickly round the team to see if anything was missing.

The initial results were encouraging, and several weeks later we are still walking the board, rather than going round the team. In particular, our board now contains a great deal more information on the tasks in play, and the team have got really good at carding up even small tasks so they are visible at the next stand-up. The amount of off-plan and busy work has also dropped, and this also be a result of the focus on the tasks on the board. Perhaps my favourite development is that the tasks on the board have become much smaller: the drive to get things done is now focused on pulling small, focused tasks across the board, rather than doing busy work.

Of course this technique is no cure-all, and it took a while for the team to acquire the discipline of walking the board in order, rather than jumping in to discuss whichever task particularly excites them. However, as an incremental adaptation, I’m very pleased with its results.

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Team Depression: a recipe for first aid

Posted in work by bnathyuw on 5 October 2012

An interesting parallel occurred to me the other day during a conversation at work: the mood of a team is subject to changes, just as that of an individual, and sometimes depression can set in. So, just as we can learn techniques to fight of depression in ourselves, maybe we can do the same within our teams.

It became clear to me a few weeks ago that my team was in the doldrums: we had come to the end of several significant pieces of work, but had released this work with very little fanfare, which led to a feeling of deflation; furthermore, our future workload was both daunting in size and vague in scope, with few clear short-term goals, which gave us a sense of listlessness; in the past few months, several really talented team members had left us, and we hadn’t yet managed to to find a new dynamic for the team, so we had lost the buzz that comes when collaboration becomes second nature; finally, a raft of factors beyond our control meant that we kept finding our work blocked, which just added another layer of frustration.

I had recently taken on the role of team lead, which meant not only that these issues became a particular problem for me, but also that I had an opportunity as primus inter pares to do something about this. In working to find a way out of this morass, I came to a realisation: I had been here before, and I already knew how to deal with it.

A rich seam of depression runs through my family, and it has been part of my life since childhood. In the past few years I have pushed it into remission, and it rarely raises its head now. However, from time to time I do catch the onset of a spell of depression, and I have identified a set of first-aid techniques that I can use to stop it developing further. Many of these techniques—regular exercise and fresh air, early nights, cutting down on alcohol, making time to read and relax—seem simple and obvious, but these are just the habits that can get sidelined when depression sets in, so I have to treat them as a strict regime and push myself to follow them. The result of this is incredibly effectively for me.

Here are my key actions in fighting the signs of depression:

  • I have identified and look out for the early warning signs, so I know when I need to take action
  • When I spot these signs, I acknowledge that the situation warrants special behaviour, even if this means putting other priorities on hold
  • I have identified specific behaviours that I know help me recover
  • I stick with these behaviours until I am back on an even keel

This brings me back to my team’s situation. Of course, the ideal is to develop good everyday habits that keep depression at bay, but while we work on that, we may well find ourselves slipping into the doldrums occasionally. It seems to me that all four of these actions can apply to a team just as readily as to an individual.

I would be interested to hear other people’s experiences of dealing with lapses in team mood, as well as thoughts on how these ideas fit with various codified working patterns. Please share your ideas!

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