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Better Daily Meetings

Sometimes they're called "scrums." Sometimes they're known as "roll-calls." I've heard of "huddles" and "syncs" and "dailies" and "check-ins." There are yet other names that I won't mention in polite company.º

I'm talking about those meetings that are typically (but not always) held once a day, ostensibly to align all attendees around each other's work, performance, and challenges. Most daily meetings impose the same format: one at a time, in sequence (typically alphabetically by name), each person must state what they've worked on, what they're planning on next, and if they've got any blockers.

I like the theory behind it, at least: constantly in touch with all of their work's latest priorities and roadblocks, a squad or team should be positioned to get valuable things done as quickly as possible.

That's the dream, anyway. For many, the reality could not be more different. Imagine attending mandatory daily meetings that typically go long, are dominated by a few voices, and spend most of their time covering issues far removed from your current area of focus. Rather than providing opportunities for synergy, these sessions eventually devolve into readouts of status updates. Instead of being empowered to take meaningful action, attendees can feel sapped, disengaged, or even resentful. After all, iterations and projects still routinely slip their schedules, and roadblocks routinely require escalations or interventions before they get handled.

If your daily meetings are not a source of energy and enthusiasm, this may be a good time to experiment with changing the way that they are run. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Mix things up! Pick a different speaker order. Try different prompts, such as "What are you looking forward to?" or "What's crushing your spirit today?" Or do away with the round-robin approach altogether, and ask the room to name the biggest obstacle facing the team right now.

  2. Be mercilessly rigid about the timing of the meeting. Try to keep it to the same time of day. While you're looking at your calendar, make the meeting shorter than you're comfortable with. If the format includes going around the room and asking for updates, timebox each of them. I've had success limiting updates to 60 seconds each. If you're going to do this, it's helpful to display a stopwatch for all to see. Either way, when the meeting time is up, the meeting should end. If you have trouble enforcing this, publicly give all attendees permission to leave right at the scheduled end.

  3. Turn the role of meeting facilitator into a rotating duty, and have everyone on the team take a turn. Success here will likely require a codified explanation of the purpose of the meeting, including its goals, and what is and is not on-topic. This may feel awkward or wasteful at first, but over time may inspire novel improvements to the meeting format.

  4. Do you really need a meeting anyway? Try making it asynchronous. If you have an online chat platform associated with your work, most of them enable bots or scripts that can collect individual status updates via direct messages, and then collate and publish the results all at once in a dedicated channel or room. Team followup discussion can flow from the bot's post, in a fraction of the time.

  5. Similarly, collect the status updates via an online collaborative document tool like Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or any wiki. You can still have a daily meeting, but shift its focus to reactions and responses to the daily document. You'll want to set the expectation that the daily doc needs to be read by everyone before the meeting.

The relative success of any or all of these tactics depends on specific teams and cultures. No matter what you try, make sure to also hold a retrospective with the team, so that you all can reflect on what worked well and what could be improved. Good luck, and have fun!

º I intentionally omitted the term "standup," which is ableist at best and insulting at worst. Note that the original intent, as stated by the co-created of Scrum, really was to have everyone stand during the whole meeting. His reasoning was that by standing, everyone would be encouraged to be active and listening, and the meeting would be encouraged to be shorter. I'd argue that if you have to force your team into physical postures in order to ensure engagement, you've got bigger problems. Just... don't make anyone literally stand up in your meetings, okay?


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