Daily standups are socially naive

There’s been a lot of writing lately about how boring and awkward daily standup meetings are. There’s no doubt that they are boring and awkward. And there’s no doubt that management sometimes abuses them to make sure the engineers come in to work “on time” (i.e. on the managers schedule, rather than a maker’s schedule).

The typical recipe for a standup meeting is every team member says “what they did yesterday”, “what they’re going to do today”, and “any blockers they have”. One thing I noticed at SlideShare was that engineers were very bashful about the “any blockers they have” question. They didn’t want to be perceived as blaming others, so even if they were blocked on something that someone could fix they often wouldn’t mention it. This is probably smart of them. If you want someone to do something for you, don’t start out by making them look bad in front of their manager!

The “reporting” aspect of saying what you had done yesterday was also a double-edged sword. It for sure provided social pressure to accomplish something every day. But it also made engineers feel low-status and closely-watched. When engineers answered this question, I could tell from their tone of voice and body language that it didn’t make them feel like they were kicking ass, but that they were feeling like they were reporting to a boss. I could tell that they were talking to me, even though a daily standup is supposed to be about communication to the team.  In the workplace, status is very highly linked to how closely you are monitored by your superiors. Junior engineers are often micromanaged. Tech leads report to managers on a weekly basis. Founders report to Investors on a monthly cadence. And Investors report to LPs every quarter.

So out of the “3 questions” advocated by the Agile process, two of them were incredibly politically/socially naive. Which I find interesting, engineers are often stereotyped as being like that. By my engineers were a lot more socially and politically adept then the people that came up with those questions!

In the end we cut it down to one question: “what are you going to do today”.  This seemed to work pretty well. It’s a managers job to know what people are doing and to notice if people are stuck and keep saying the same thing. Making engineers feel in control is more important than making life easy for managers. If you want to hire good people and have them do good creative work for you, they have to feel like you are helping them kick ass.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize the high cost that an all-team meeting has. Even a 10-minute meeting is expensive if 10 people attend it! And there’s no way of getting around the fact that night-owl engineers will feel like a standup meeting is an attempt to get them to come into work earlier than they’d like. So even with only one question, daily standup still feels like a plot to subordinate engineers more than a tool to help them.

In my next startup, I will definitely replace the daily standup meeting with a slack channel where people say what their plan for the day is. I always spend the first few minutes of the workday thinking hard about what I should do that day, and writing that down. Adding a social aspect to that process via chat software sounds like an appealing way to start the day. Especially when you compare it to sitting through yet another boring standup meeting!