Emerging Team

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Daily stand-ups; not just for developers

Alex Williams

Front-end Developer @ Forward Partners

A daily stand-up is one of the cornerstones of agile software development. It helps developers share knowledge and stay on track. However, it’s a practice that shouldn’t only be limited to development teams. It’s a habit that can add a lot of value when introduced to early stage startups. At Forward Partners we have found that companies who start using stand-ups early in the life of their business are more productive, communicative and have a stronger team dynamic. Developing the habit early can reinforce knowledge sharing, break down silos between different disciplines and focus the work of the team on specific business goals. This is paramount when the business is at an early stage and focusing on revenue growth, and remains equally as important when the team grows and the business goals change.

Key takeaways

  • A daily stand-up helps focus the team on the businesses short term goals;
  • breaks down silos between different disciplines and encourages knowledge sharing; and
  • allows the team to flag anything that’s blocking them in a timely manner.
  • Let’s take a further look at what a standup involves, why it will benefit your startup, and what makes up a good daily standup.

What is a stand-up?

A stand-up is a concept that comes from agile software development. Its aim is to act as a short, time-boxed meeting, and allow a team of developers to communicate to each other what they have been working on, and whether there is anything blocking them from progressing. This update is most commonly done through the ‘three questions’ approach:

  1. what did I do yesterday;
  2. what am I planning on doing today; and
  3. is there anything blocking my progress?

Each team member should concisely communicate what they completed the day before, what they plan to do today, and whether anything is blocking them from completing a task. An example from Forward Partners (building a product for an idea-stage startup) could be:

  1. yesterday I helped Seth (our lead designer) with user interviews;
  2. today I will transcribe the interviews and collate key findings; and
  3. I am blocked on booking anymore interviews because there are no meeting rooms available.

By focusing on the three questions I am able to update the team on the status of the user interviews, that I’ll be following up on them today, and flag to the founder that I need help freeing up a meeting room to continue testing. While there are other ways of conducting a stand-up (see Kanban’s ’walking the wall’ as a good example) the three questions approach suit a cross-disciplinary team more commonly found in an idea-stage startup. That being said a standup is not meant to be a status update from team members to the founder. This is a balance that’s often quite hard to strike as it is relatively easy for team members to act as though they are ‘reporting in’ to the founder rather than sharing their status with the rest of the team. A simple way to avoid this is to ensure you are not directing your update to the founder, but to different members of the group each time. Team stand-ups are normally held first thing in the morning, usually after the team has arrived, dealt with a few emails and grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchen. In this way it can be a good way to officially start the day. If several of your team arrive at work much earlier than the rest and like to immediately ‘get stuck in’ then they may not enjoy having their work interrupted by a stand-up. This is difficult, but you have to find a time that works for the majority of the team and stick to it. Alternatively, it can act as a cap-stone on the day. One of Forward Partners’ portfolio companies, Lexoo, a marketplace for legal service providers, found that they received the lion’s share of their enquiries first thing in the morning. Rather than interrupt their flow they moved the stand-up to the end of the day. This allowed the team to give feedback on successes and failures from earlier in the day and flag any blockers for the following day. Additionally, Lexoo also end their stand-up with every team member making one loud clap. Chris O’Sullivan, CTO, said that without a finishing clap, “we found stand-ups (and meetings in general) would end with a bit of a weak ‘ok…let’s do it...' Having a collective clap really punctuates it.”

How can it benefit your start-up?

Implementing a daily stand-up for your team helps the team share an understanding of the focus of the business, coordinate their efforts so they are working towards the same goal, share problems, and identify as a team. Simply put, it gets the team talking. I would hazard a guess that these benefits, while good for any team, are absolutely essential for an early stage startup. With a small team it is imperative that the team is first able to understand the shared goal they are working towards. It could be the first launch of a prototype, interviewing potential users to gather a better understanding of who the product will serve, or working to maximise revenue growth. Understanding the current goal of the business helps the team coordinate their day-to-day tasks to further that larger goal. This will be clearly apparent when the team is talking about what they did yesterday, and what they are planning to do today. Furthermore, raising any blockers to these goals will help keep the business moving “uncomfortably fast” (Kieran O'Neill, CEO of Thread) - essential for any early stage start-up. Lastly, a daily stand-up is fantastic for building a good team dynamic. Understanding what different members of the team are working on helps to increase a general understanding of where the business is going and how each individual is contributing to the business as a whole. With an early stage start-up a team could range from 2-10 people and this initial group buy-in is very important. With larger teams a balance needs to be struck between a keeping the stand-up short and to the point. In our experience we have found that once a team exceeds 20 people it is often time to split the stand-up. A common reason for this is that the product team grows post-launch and needs a product-centred stand-up for itself. As long as the second group is not forgotten this can work nicely and can scale well. Building a strong team dynamic becomes even more important if any of your team work remotely. While relying on remote developers is common in early stage startups it can often feel like they are not part of the team. Having remote team members call into the stand-up (either through Skype, or a Google Hangout) helps them feel more present and helps to communicate their work to the rest of the team. While it’s tempting to rely on email updates, or Slack messages for this I would suggest, if possible, that this is always a call.

How to avoid pitfalls and implement the best stand-up possible.

Come prepared

Like any other meeting you should encourage your team to come prepared. Being able to talk about what they did the day before, what they plan to do today and whether they have anything blocking them is important. Without preparation the stand-up either drags on too long while the team member tries to think about what to say or they will pass on contributing which defeats the aim of the standup as no-one else benefits from knowing what they will be working on.

Who speaks first? Use a token.

Who speaks first? Does the founder speak first and run the risk of ’leading’ the standup, or does a team member kick things off and run the risk of appearing to ‘report in’ to the founder. This is less of a problem with small teams, for example a single founder and an intern or first hire, however it will start to become a challenge as the team grows. We solve this problem by using a commonly accepted technique; a ‘speaking’ token.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Forward Partners we use a knitted green angry bird. The one with the long nose (i.e. convenient handle) who we have named Nigel. When a team member is holding Nigel they are communicating to the team, and when they have finished they pass the bird onto the next person. He is passed around the team in a clockwise motion so every person able to give their update.

Avoid problem-solving

When sharing blockers with the team it is important to keep them to the point. It is often common that raising an impediment distracts the team. The team, or founder, make a note of the blocker and then move into problem solving mode, i.e. asking for more detail on the impediment and what can be done to remove it. While useful for the team member who raised the issue it can prolong a stand-up and distract from the next person’s update. Rather than problem solve, make a note of the blocker and ‘take it offline’, i.e. discuss possible solutions after the stand-up has finished.

Developing the habit

Start developing the habit of holding stand-ups while your team is still small and as it grows you’ll find that knowledge is shared more openly and your team will be singularly focused on the over-arching goals of the business. It will help the team break down silos between different roles and encourage knowledge sharing. It will also allow problems to be raised quickly and encourage a more cohesive, shared, team identity. All distinct benefits to your budding startup.

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