Synchronous daily standups are a waste of time |

Synchronous daily standups are a waste of time

Posted by Luke Thomas

The daily standup meeting is an important ritual of teams that follow an agile methodology. I've found a ton of value with them both as an employee and as a team leader.

With that being said, I'm not convinced that synchronous (real-time) daily standups are worth it.

In the rest of this post, I'd like to dig into this cadence and see if it makes sense to have a real-time meeting, especially in a modern work environment with distributed teams in multiple timezones.

First, let's establish the foundation by outlining the basic structure and format.

Unpacking the Questions

A daily standup typically revolves around the following questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Any blockers?

Let's see what each question helps us learn and discover.

1.) "What did you do yesterday?"

The point of this question is to share past progress that has been made since the last standup twenty-four hours before. Ideally, this is encouraging and helps give the team a sense of forward motion.

It also bakes accountability into the process. If you said I would accomplish "X" yesterday and I did not do it, it allows for inspection and and the ability to course correct in the future.

2.) "What will you do today?"

The point of this question is to share what you hope to achieve before the next meeting. I've found that this question forces people to share their expected output for a given day. As an employee, this forced me to be accountable for my output.

Additionally, this can be helpful information to share to the rest of the group that drives improved awareness and visibility. Overall, I'm a big fan of answering this question on a regular basis (even for my own personal productivity).

3.) "Any blockers?"

This question seeks to discover barriers to forward motion. In highly collaborative environments, someone may be a blocker to progress without even realizing it. In an ideal scenario, people feel comfortable sharing if someone else is impeding their progress. This frequently isn't the case, but let's assume it is.

If a blocker exists, the daily scrum can be a wonderful way to identify these barriers. A fifteen minute meeting can potentially free up hours of productivity. This is a high-leverage activity.

Synchronous daily standups have problems

Now that we've identified the building blocks of a daily standup meeting and what benefits one can expect, let's talk about the downsides of holding them in-real-time.

1.) Responses don't persist

From my perspective, the biggest problem with a synchronous standup is that the data doesn't persist as nothing is written down. If something isn't written down, it creates ambiguity and potential miscommunication in the future.

For example:

  • Tim: "Yesterday I did [foo]"
  • Tammy: "Didn't you say you would do [bar] yesterday?"

There's no hard-fact data that can be referenced to confirm/deny if Tim would do [foo] or [bar]. Writing things down creates more accountability compared to sharing information verbally which can easily be forgotten and misunderstood.

If you use Friday to automate daily standups, this will automatically persist in a shareable way (see an example report below).

2.) Challenging for distributed teams

The next problem with real-time standups is that they can be a challenge to coordinate across timezones. While holding a standup at the same time on a daily basis can reduce this challenge, the reality is that this can be difficult and annoying for distributed employees.

For example, I've been part of a daily standup where it was 9pm at night for one coworker and 8am in the morning for another. While my coworker may have been "okay" with a 9pm standup, I'm sure this cadence impacted his personal life and family.

3.) Ideal working hours depend on the individual

In one of my first jobs out of college, I would be the first person to show up to the office (~6:30 AM). I loved avoiding traffic and found that this was my most productive time of day. Some of my coworkers would show up at 10-11am and would stay after 6pm. For them, the most productive time of day was the afternoon. I was useless after 3pm.

The reality is that scheduling a daily meeting requires context switching and forces people to build their work around a meeting every single day.

It doesn't matter if this is your most productive time of day. Similar to remote employees, there is no ideal solution when everyone needs to be in the same place at once.

4.) Oftentimes people don't have blockers to share

As I mentioned earlier in the post, if a daily standup can surface blockers that impede progress, it's a high-leverage activity. Fifteen minutes can impact hours of someone's day.

Most of the time people don't have blockers though - at least most standups I've been in. We offer a way to hold standups asynchronously, so we see this happen across our customer base as well.

This could be due to the following factors:

  • People don't feel comfortable sharing that someone else is impeding progress (bad)
  • The team may be effective at creating swim-lanes during high-level planning sessions (good)

If the most important question is rarely applicable, perhaps the meeting should be redesigned? 

If the meeting is less about coordination and more about information sharing, it sounds like the dreaded status update meeting.

5.) People outside the meeting want to know what's going on

Another reality with a daily standup is that five minutes after the standup ends, someone who didn't attend the meeting has questions about what someone is working on.

For example, I worked on an engineering team but interfaced with the marketing team quite a bit. They were ALWAYS asking about the status of a particular project or task as it impacted their work.

I would end up relaying information from these meetings. There was no persistent record that I could reference and share.

6.) Low-quality information

Another problem is that many people show up the meeting having done little preparation beforehand. Some people will prepare beforehand (sometimes too much), but many won't.

Then, when people share an update  they will inevitably forget to highlight important and relevant information that would benefit the rest of the group. The quality bar can be low.

7.) They can be expensive

Finally, a daily standup can be expensive from a time-cost perspective. I don't consider this to be the most compelling point, so I saved it for last.

A 15 minute meeting with a team of five engineers being paid $100k/year each is $450 a week (or ~$1800/mo). This excludes the cost of context switching or preparation, which could easily double the time-cost.

"But these meetings are important to our team culture"

When I present the idea of holding a daily standup asynchronously, people rarely dispute the points I present above.

By far, the most pushback I get involves around how many see these events as key to establishing and maintaining a sense of culture.

I get it.

I was part of a distributed team and at the end of the daily standup, someone would read a quote from the Quotationary. The daily standup itself was a waste of time, but the quote at the end was fun.

The dirty secret of many meetings

The dirty secret that no one wants to talk about is that a non-trivial amount of meetings are marketed as one thing (i.e. - sharing work and staying accountable), but the deeper root cause is something completely different (i.e. - to build team culture and camaraderie).

This meeting asymmetry transcends throughout the organization right up to the CEO.

If you design a meeting to share work and keep everyone accountable, but the hidden purpose of the meeting is something completely different, why don't you just change the structure of the meeting to focus on the core purpose (building team culture) instead?

This makes zero sense to me. It seems like people are more interested in signaling how much they are working vs. being effective and thoughtful with the way they design meetings.

What we've done at Friday

As a fully distributed team, we've tweaked the format/questions of our our async daily standup over time, but we've settled on the following questions:

  • What are you working on today?
  • Anything else you want to share?

The answers to the second question in particular have been insightful.

I've posted before that I will be out for the afternoon, so I may be delayed in responding. Another coworker might post about a snow day. Someone else might post about how they are getting a garage door installed.

I enjoy seeing this as it helps me connect and and build a sense of ambient awareness, even as a distributed team.

Coworking sessions

Additionally, we also have started to do a bi-weekly co-working session (learn more in our guide on building better relationships when working remotely) where the team jumps on a hour-long Zoom call. The point of this call is to hang out, talk, get to know each other, and get some work done. The primary purpose is to resemble the feeling of being huddled around a table at a coffee shop working. I've enjoyed it quite a bit so far.

Instead of having a meeting about work with the true purpose being a culture-building exercise, we've flipped the meeting format upside down. This is a culture-building event with some work involved.

Parting thoughts

There are problems with real-time daily standups and there are problems with asynchronous ones as well. Neither solution is perfect. I think asynchronous standups are a much better tool for the job, especially in the age of Slack and distributed teams.

With that being said, if you are holding a real-time meeting that is at it's core, a culture-building exercise, I'd strongly encourage you to be honest with yourself and rebuild the meeting to focus on culture instead.

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