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Why the Daily Standup Matters By @Rex_Morrow | @DevOpsSummit #DevOps

Defeating resistance to the daily standup

I'm not a big fan of meetings.  I particularly dislike useless meetings - those of the ‘dog and pony show' persuasion, or those where it seems like the individual who organized the meeting is simply looking for a soapbox to drone on and on endlessly rather than try to get anything useful accomplished.  This is not to say that I don't think meetings have their place - they do.  But I think there's an art to holding valuable meetings, and that that art is not something generally known or well understood.

To begin with, every meeting should have a clearly defined purpose - a reason for why the meeting is being held.  As an officer in the Army, I worked for several years in the operations shop of a battalion, responsible for planning, coordinating and resourcing the training and operations of five subordinate companies.  I worked for this major we called The Shark who taught us staff captains the art of holding meetings. The Shark was a no frills, hard-nosed warfighter - we called him The Shark because he would occasionally, without any advance warning, ‘swim' into the operations shop and ‘eat' a young, unsuspecting captain.  He ate a lot of captains during meetings as well - getting publicly grilled by him in front of your peers and superiors is what we used to call a ‘significant emotional event.'

When a captain would schedule a meeting, the first thing The Shark would do when he walked into the room was bellow, "What's the purpose of this meeting?!?" Any waffling on the captain's part would lead to his getting eaten, followed by The Shark storming out of the room.  We learned very quickly, via something psychologists call ‘negative reinforcement,' how to hold purposeful meetings.  It sounds abusive, but you have to remember that we lived in a warrior culture. How could we expect to be able to do things like clear Al Qaeda scoundrels from Baqubah (which we did in fact do in 2007) if we couldn't even get a freakin' meeting right? The Shark was hardening us, making us better and more capable, more efficient with our communication, more respectful of peoples' time, more purpose driven. We were lucky to have him.

A lot of technical folks moving to Agile development complain about the daily standup, or try to undermine it, or try to get rid of it. They, like me, don't like meetings at all. This is the topic of an article by Mark Levison this week on the Agile Pain Relief blog. Some of the excuses Levison has heard regarding the daily standup are things like "Daily Scrum? It's a waste of time and interrupts my work," or, "Daily Scrum is just a chance for the ScrumMaster to show up and micromanage," or, "Daily Scrum is for reporting status, but I could do that in an email."  Topping the heaping pile of these excuses was an email that Levison recently received, which is what prompted the article, where someone wrote to him that his team was so fed up with daily standups that they ‘automated' the meeting via a SaaS tool they created. The reasons stated for foregoing daily standups in favor of creating and maintaining a new software tool included "they took a lot of time, de-focused our colleagues and interrupted their workflows."

As I said, I'm not a big fan of meetings, but something seems amiss to me here.  I'm actually a really big fan of the daily standup meeting. As a marketer I try to attend our engineering team's daily standup whenever I can, although I must admit that that hasn't been that often as of late. I don't intend to speak, just listen to what's going on in engineering.  I like to go because our engineering team holds really useful meetings, and I like to admire their efficiency and usefulness.

The reason I enjoy daily standup, and think that they are important, is because there is a clearly defined purpose - to coordinate the team's efforts within the sprint - and there is a very clear structure to how that is accomplished.  Each person rotates, telling the team what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and to discuss impediments that might prevent the team from reaching the sprint goal. That's it - about a minute-and-a-half is all that's required from each person, and then the team is off to the races, confident that they're all headed in the right direction - together.

The other reason I like daily standup is that it mirrors a meeting format we used in the Army called the ‘Battle Update Brief' (BUB), held every 24 hours during a training exercise or while deployed to some country where people are trying to kill you every day.  I found that to be a very useful daily meeting.  It always started off with the intelligence officer giving an update on battlefield conditions and significant enemy activity within the past 24 hours - essentially framing the context for the discussion that followed.  After that, each staff captain and company commander would give an update from his department or company, following exactly the same format as the daily standup.

Why was it useful?  Because knowledge is power. Because any endeavor involving more than one human requires coordination in order to be successful.  Because it's useful to know what's going on to your right and left, so that you have the necessary context for making timely and critical decisions.  Because the battlefield landscape can change drastically overnight, and it's important to remember that the enemy ‘always gets a vote.'

So I don't understand, or commiserate with, all this wailing and gnashing of teeth when it comes to daily standup.  It's one of the most efficient meetings I've ever witnessed.  If your team is complaining that it interrupts their workflows, or takes too long, then you're doing it wrong.  It's as simple as that.  And how can you be expected to deliver high quality software that is valuable to users if you can't even get a freakin' meeting right?

It's enough to make The Shark want to chomp on you all the live long day.

More Stories By Rex Morrow

Rex is the Marketing Director at Datical, a venture-backed software company whose solution, Datical DB, manages and simplifies database schema change management in support of high velocity application releases. Prior to Datical, Rex co-founded Texas Venture Labs, a startup accelerator at the University of Texas, and received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business. Before graduate school, Rex served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, and was awarded two bronze stars during combat deployments in Iraq.

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