Problem solving in the Daily Scrum

I’m guessing that we have all experienced problem solving in the daily scrum and what this can do to the 15 minute time-box? You know the scene, a couple of developers get into the detail of a story and start to work on the problem itself rather than saying ‘I understand what you’re saying, let’s catch up later and have a brainstorm’.

However, problem solving isn’t the only dysfunction that can totally destroy the effectiveness of the daily scrum / stand-up. I would even say that the Daily scrum / stand-up is the most misused, misunderstood and dysfunctional event in agile.

Why do I say this? Read on, dear reader…

There are many things that can ruin the daily scrum.

Lack of understanding on the purpose of the meeting

‘Why are you here?’ is one of the best openers I have heard from a meeting facilitator.

It may sound absurd but some people attend meetings not knowing why they are there and what the purpose of the meeting is. Putting aside the philosophical responses that question generates, it is likely that there is a lack of alignment between the attendees unless you have clarified the purpose beforehand.

The meeting becomes a status update

Due to a lack of understanding of the meeting purpose the daily can rapidly descend into a status update.

Another reason for this happening is that a line manager may be present and the team members feel the need to ‘update’ their manager. This is an unhealthy situation as it also discourages transparency. Problems do not get raised as the team member does not want to look bad in front of his boss.

The team is too big

As the scrum guide says,

“Having more than nine members requires too much coordination. Large Development Teams generate too much complexity for an empirical process to be useful.”

A large team will have many more interactions which will slow down communication.

The team lacks cohesion and is not in a highly collaborative state

It takes time for a team to become cohesive and highly collaborative. In the early stages of team development, people are finding their place, jostling for position and determining where they fit in the team. They may not be communicating particularly well. In these situations the daily may be the only place where the communication flows and therefore becomes quite a lengthy session as everyone finds out what everyone else has been doing.

The passage of time, healthy retrospectives and team building activities help to bring the team together.

The team is not actually a team – it is a group of individuals

Some teams are not teams at all. They are a collection of individuals brought together in a group to aid management and control. It’s sad but true. If you have one of these then ditch the Scrum Overhead and go back to task management. It’ll be more effective.

The time-box is not enforced by the Scrum Master

There are occasions when a Scrum Master deliberately ‘allows’ the team to break its time-box. For example, he may want the team to come to their own realisation about the importance of a timebox.

However, if the Scrum Master is not actively encouraging the team to do ‘just enough’ daily planning then he is not setting up the team for success.

Invited stakeholders/interested parties are not adhering to the rules of the stand-up

Ahhh, the old chicken and pig story.

I’ve never really liked that story (nor has Mike Cohn so I’m in good company). It suggests that the development team are the only ones that are committed. I don’t believe this is true however the concept is useful when coaching interested parties who want to attend the team’s stand-up.

The standard practice is to allow everyone to attend but they must be silent observers. However, a good Scrum Master will ‘allow’ some discussion if it helps the team to plan more effectively.

Team members updating their progress in the stand-up

Whether the team is using a physical wall, an electronic tool or both, they should be updating their tasks in real-time. The reason for this is so that a glance at the wall/tool at any point in time will show the current status of the sprint. You should be able to see what items are in progress, not yet started, done or blocked. The stand-up is really not the place to update tasks – it should be done continuously throughout the day.

Team members waiting until the stand-up to communicate rather than doing this continuously

This dysfunction can be caused by many factors. The team members may not like each other and are therefore not disposed to communicate unless they really have to. This team has probably come about through management control rather than allowing a self empowered team to select its team members. Once its in place though it is incredibly hard to change.

On distributed teams (which is never a good idea) just the geographical differences can discourage continuous communication.

There’s a reason that this agile principle exists.

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

This is very hard to achieve on a team where the members are separated by distance.

What does the scrum guide say?

“…the Development team uses the Daily Scrum to inspect progress towards the sprint goal and to inspect how progress is trending toward completing the work in the Sprint backlog…”  The Scrum Guide

It’s important to understand that the daily scrum/stand-up is the shortest feedback loop in scrum.

If you are going to go off course, it is more likely that you will go off course in small unnoticeable degrees as small changes can be hard to see. That’s why it is useful to check on a daily basis if the team is still on course to reach its forecast or changes are required.

“… an internal meeting for the Development team…” The Scrum Guide

The meeting is owned by the Development team, it is not for the Scrum Master, Product Owner or any other stakeholders to commandeer.

“…the team plans work for the next 24 hours….” The Scrum Guide

The daily scrum / stand-up is over when there is an agreed plan of work for the next 24 hours.

How should the daily meeting run?

There are many ways of running the daily meeting and how this meeting is facilitated depends on many factors however there are some approaches that have proved useful.

The 3 questions

Business man covers face with question board

The three questions approach is mentioned in the scrum guide.

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?

Walk the wall (Kanban style)

If you are assisting a scrum that has many team members it can take more than 15 minutes to synchronise activities. In this case, it may be worth experimenting with a ‘walk the wall’ approach. This technique is used a lot when running a Kanban system. The premise is that the work items attend the sprint, not the team members. By that, I mean the team members are present but the focus isn’t on what the team member has done or will do but instead the focus is on the work items and how they can be moved to done. The wall is walked from right to left, top to bottom.

Being mindful of behaviours

If you wish to understand why some thing isn’t working you will find your answer observing the humans who are involved and their behaviours. There’s a reason we value people and interactions over processes and tools. Focusing on people enables us to get a deeper understanding of the issues. I’ve listed some of the behaviours I have observed but there are many, many more.

Problem solving

We work in the knowledge economy. People who work in this environment are not motivated by money (once they are paid enough) but are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Naturally, this type of person will want to problem solve as it provides an opportunity to demonstrate or gain mastery.

Helping others

Most people like to help others. This is even more so on a long lived team. Relationships are deep. This is great but can contribute to more lengthy discussions and diversions than is necessary. Although I would never discourage valuable communication it must always be just enough to be useful.

Some people like the sound of their own voices

Let’s be honest, you know who these people are. They can’t stop talking, not allowing anyone to interject. It’s time to buy some nerf guns!

Preparation

Believe it or not, there is life outside the office. Abundant, life affirming, wonderful life! So sometimes we come to the daily scrum with thoughts of the previous evenings escapades and it takes time to gather our thoughts and refocus on the work. If there is someone like this on the team then my advice is to come to them last to give them time to prepare their thoughts.

Fear

Fear can be very destructive. If someone is fearful they are less likely to ‘own up’ to mistakes. Perhaps paint a rosier picture than being factual. One of the core values of Scrum is transparency. Fear can make people put up barriers and hide the truth which destroys transparency. This is why it is vital to create a safe, trusting environment for the team.

Distractions

I’m going to put my cards on the table and confess that I do not like open plan offices. I think they are anathema to productivity. I much prefer a team room where you can close the door on the rest of the world.

The irrelevant stakeholder story

I remember an occasion when I joined an agile team as their scrum master. They had a physical wall in an open plan office. On my first day, I attended the team stand up with the intention of observing. I had not yet met the team and had no idea who they were or how many but I did know where their scrum board was. I turned up and noticed there were about five people mingling in front of the board. They started talking about the stories (some of which had been around for three months – but that’s a whole other story).

As the minutes passed, more and more people arrived. Someone arrived half way through the stand up and joined the third row! He was very vocal, offering his insight and opinion. I guessed that he was possibly the PO or an important stakeholder.

By the end of the stand up there was fifteen people, three rows deep. Before they dispersed, I decided to take the opportunity to find out who everyone was. It became clear that only the original five were actually doing the work, everyone else had just turned up to observe (although they were very vocal in their observations).

The very vocal person who I thought may be the PO said that he just happened to be passing, saw the group gathered and stopped to offer his opinions! He had nothing to do with the team at all.

If you have your own team room you can shut the door otherwise you will need to physically shield the team from uninvited interruptions.

Success factors for keeping the meeting focused and time-boxed

Dedicated Scrum Master

When there is a dedicated scrum master in the team they are accountable for ensuring the time-box. They will also make sure that the team stays focused and on topic.

16th Minute

I use the 16th minute technique all the time. No-one likes to be cut short or have their opinions ignored. The 16th minute is a great way to say ‘hey, what you’re saying is really important, lets make sure we save some time after the stand-up to discuss it‘.

The Plank

The plank at standup

Why do we stand up at the ‘stand up’? Richard Branson has a nice little article explaining why he conducts most of his meetings standing up. Sometimes he has a walking meeting. I’ll have to give that a try! Hey, – that’s just given me an idea – a sandwich board for a scrum board to use during a walking stand up!

A walking daily scrum sandwich board

Standing up in a meeting brings a higher energy and focus. It will also encourage shorter meetings due to the physical discomfort.  Speaking of physical discomfort why not try a difficult yoga position, such as ‘the plank’. Try going on for hours in that position!

Nerf guns

Shooting someone when they are going into too much detail is a highly effective time box manager. Beware the Mexican Standoff.

Safe Word

A safe word can help the team to know when the scrum is over.

Mix it up

Boring meetings lack energy and focus. Keep the daily scrum interesting. Experiment with changing the environment. Why not have a stand-up at your local cafe over breakfast? This is the time to get creative and have some fun!

Fine system (only if the team agrees!)

This approach only works if you have full team agreement. Establish some team rules and the penalties in advance. For example, a team member who turns up late to the daily scrum has to pay a 50 pence fine.

It’s important to collect the money and use it to buy everyone a drink at the next team social.

Be careful with this though as I have experienced substantial kickback even just suggesting the idea!

Same time, same place

A little fact you may or may not know about me is that I play saxophone in several bands. On average there are about 9 members. Trying to organise rehearsals and gig availability is a complete nightmare for one of the bands. They try to arrange a time using WhatsApp, posting potential dates and times. They rarely find a time that suits everybody. My other band have a regular Monday night slot at the same time and the same place. We meet with no drama.

By conducting the daily scrum at the same time, every day, at the same place it is easy for everyone to schedule their other activities around this ‘fixed’ meeting. Over time it becomes a habit that is hard to break.

And that neatly brings me on to my summary

Being good at the daily scrum is all about forming and maintaining the right habits. Once those habits have formed they will be difficult to upset. Unfortunately, this means that any existing dysfunctional habits will be hard to break too.

But then, nobody said this job was easy.