Are daily standups hurting your team?

What software developers can learn from Ford and GM

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Are daily standups hurting your team?

The daily standup may have done more than any other ritual to improve developer productivity. During an era of limited communication, standups trained us to be direct collaborators who seek out and destroy misalignment. But times have changed, and we can now combine the best aspects of daily standups with the benefits of modern, asynchronous communication.

It’s time to celebrate the standup ritual for all it has given us, and then move forward with something better. I recommend Ryan Singer's Shape Up as a starting point.

A brief history of the automobile

The arc of the early car industry was defined by three phases. In the first phase, cars were rare and expensive, with diffuse attempts to invest in capital, and few recognizable brands. In the second phase, Henry Ford unified and defined the market under the Model T, with its mass production and lower prices.

The real genius took place during the third phase, in which Alfred Sloan at General Motors segmented the market by demographics and lifestyle, with differentiated models for each segment. This is why, 90 years after Sloan started at GM, we still see near-identical cars selling under different badges.

The key to Alfred Sloan’s success was a mix of centralized control by senior leaders, together with decentralized decision-making by those closest to the customers. Sloan’s management style embraced the nuance and complexity of human relationships. He established a culture of persuasion, in which managers collaborated on decisions through functionally diverse committees.

Daily standups are the Model T of software development

The ‘three phases’ framework is not specific to cars. It can generally describe the arc of any product or service, or practice, including the practice of software development.

Jeff Sutherland, one of the creators of Scrum, brought us into the ‘second phase’ of software in the early 90s, with a system that was more productive, easy to implement, and armed with that killer feature—the daily standup—which broke through barriers and reduced the cost of internal communication.

Standups came of age at a time when people were largely disconnected, by today’s standards. High-speed internet wasn’t a thing. Cell phones and text messaging didn’t exist. Collaboration was relatively expensive, and daily standups were an inexpensive way of short-circuiting long cycles of misalignment. Like Henry Ford’s assembly line, there was an efficiency to the routine of a standup, especially in tandem with Standup’s best friend, Backlog.

But the problems that standups helped solve are long gone, at least in their original form. Really, doesn’t the idea of gathering a team for a status meeting feel quaint in an era of ubiquitous instant messaging?

In today’s environment, standups may be impairing communication rather than helping it

To be clear, I am encouraging more communication, not less communication. For internally aligned teams, you get more, and better, communication through a system that replaces daily standups with asynchronous collaboration.

The future is fewer status meetings, and more micro-publishing updates. Lots more two- and three-person discussions, and fewer gatherings that challenge the Fire Code.

Standups are intended to set a 'floor' for communication, but they often set a 'ceiling' instead. In my experience, the ‘daily’ standup becomes a benchmark for minimum acceptable communication.

Show up for 15 minutes, and then it’s safe to hide for the rest of the day. This may or may not be a problem given the economics of the business in which a software team operates. Many businesses don’t want to pay the premium that attracts employees with an ownership mindset sufficient to unlock the benefits of asynchronous collaboration. If that describes your situation, keep the standup—if the stick is a deliberate part of the model, that’s fine by me.

If you’re wary of a future without standups, you need to Shape Up

But if you’re part of the group that just ‘knows’ standups are a good thing, I ask you to consider making yourselves uncomfortable. Experiment with fewer standups. Empower decentralized decision making. Back it up with centralized control. Just like Alfred Sloan did at GM.

Ryan Singer has reduced this argument to a fantastic and practical playbook in Shape Up, which continues to grow in influence. In my view, Singer has unlocked the software development equivalent of Alfred Sloan’s ‘phase three’ management system: it’s a framework for better human communication, grounded in the context of creating software, and unburdened by the legacy of internet access through a dial-up modem.

Shape Up recommends an asynchronous-first approach built around an opinionated project management tool. Six week cycles (followed by two week cooldowns) replace the two-week sprint. Separate tracks help keep the distinction clear between centralized control (shaping) and decentralized decision making (implementation). Lots more time thinking about how to make the process fit the personalities on the team, rather than training the team fit the process.

Let’s pour one out for the daily standup

We should celebrate the daily standup for everything it has given us, just as we should celebrate the Ford Model T. They were both technological marvels. But if you had to drive a Model T today, you’d quickly appreciate the beauty of the 'worst' new car at your local dealer.

I hope we meet soon, ideally in phase three. Or perhaps we’re better off exchanging texts.