The ‘daily stand-up’ meeting is a key ceremony for agile methods.  Yet few teams realize that to make the meeting truly effective requires a shift in how work for the sprint is planned.

The basics of the ‘daily stand up’ ceremony are well known, but often less well executed.   Typically a meeting is staged where the team gathers together and each team member in turn explains:

  • What they did yesterday
  • What they plan to do today
  • Any blockers

Sound familiar?  Sound boring?  Yep, then read on.  From a process perspective any ceremony is only value if it supports the core mission.  With the agile Scrum/sprint methodology that mission is about the agile team delivering on the ‘contract’ agreed with the product owner –  namely competing the user stories agreed for the sprint.   The purpose of the stand up can be summarized as:

  • Reaffirming shared understanding of goals
  • Co-ordinating efforts
  • Sharing problems and improvements

Yet those aspects  are only of value if they compliment the mission and have a ‘delivery’ focus.  In this context its not about what a team member ‘did’ yesterday, rather what they accomplished or achieved.  It’s a subtle shift away from an ‘activity’ view towards an ‘output’ orientated view. In this light the three stand up questions now morph to being:

  • What did I accomplish/achieve yesterday?
  • What do I plan to accomplish/achieve today?
  • What blockers do I currently have or might I introduce today?

I like the analogy to a track relay race. The goal of the race is to get the baton round, not the runners, and the baton for a sprint team are the user stories that make up the mission.  Some agile authorities go even further and change the language to use terms like ‘what did I complete yesterday’ and ‘what do I commit to completing today’, but that might be a little too aggressive for new agile new teams.

Shifting towards a deliverable/output orientation puts a different dynamic into the stand-up meeting as the team are now jointly focused about getting stuff done. There are a couple of tactics that help with this:

  • Firstly, have the team stand in front of whatever visual representation being used to track sprint progress. Make sure this includes a burndown chart to help quantify the progress from a time/effort perspective.
  • Secondly, when its their turn to talk have each team member literally step forward towards the sprint progress visualization and point towards their tickets as they answer the three questions.  Make sure that the team member starts with their tickets that are at rightmost columns of the visualization,e.g.. ‘WIP’, ‘In Test’ etc. That way the conversation can be focused on getting stuff across the line into the ‘done’ column.

So back to the blog heading – how does a well-run output focus stand up meeting affect sprint planning?    User stories have to be decomposed to a level where they are granular enough to fit within a sprint.  Personally, I favour agile sprint planning that decomposes user stories into ‘tasks’ which have to be achieved to complete the story.  Whatever the approach employed there is a need to decompose the work to a level where it can be assigned, worked on and finished.  If in our new ‘output’ focused daily stand-ups a team member is being asked to affirm what they achieved/completed yesterday then this infers that the units of work have to be set at a level of one day or less.  Otherwise, there is nothing tangible to report. If a sprint team have a bunch of stories or tasks that are sized at greater than one day then the daily stand up ends up being nothing more than a round of “still working on story x” comments which makes the ceremony pretty pointless.

The logical extension of having an output focused stand up meeting is a requirement to have the units of work sized at a level of one day or less.  For this my own preference is to adopt the following sprint planning approach:

  • Size user stories so that they are no larger than one-third of the sprint length (e.g. 2 to 3 days for a two-week sprint)
  • Decompose a user story into the tasks that represent the work to complete the user story.  Ideally, continue the task breakdown until a task is set a half day level.  That way a team member should be able to complete at least one task per day, and they will have something tangible to report at the daily stand up.

In summary,  shifting the stand-up meeting towards an output orientation keeps the team focused and energized towards completing the team ‘mission’. To make that effective requires that units of work be decomposed to a level of 1 day or less.  That is good for tracking progress, but also highly positive for team psychology as members more readily start to tick off work items as ‘done’.