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How to Make Your Stand-Up Meetings More Effective
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How to Make Your Stand-Up Meetings More Effective

How to hold a stand-up meeting that never wastes time

October 20, 2020
Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

Popularized for its utility in software development, the stand-up meeting is an effective tool for keeping teams on track and removing blockers.

And though they’re popular among engineering teams practicing the Agile methodology, stand-ups can benefit any project team.

But as useful as they can be, without the right approach, stand-up meetings quickly devolve into time-wasters.

So in this post, I’m going to start with some much-needed context for this often-misunderstood meeting. Then, I’ll detail the rules, tools, and leadership approach you need to plan, prepare for, and run consistently effective stand-ups.

What is a Stand-up Meeting?

The purpose of a stand-up meeting is for team members to share progress, remove roadblocks, and stay aligned. 

Meeting attendees traditionally stay standing for the duration of the meeting—hence the name. Standing up serves as a reminder to keep the meeting short; the ideal time range is between 5 and twenty minutes. 

A key distinction between a status update and a stand-up meeting is that the latter is designed for team discussion, not an update for managers or stakeholders.

Of course, stand-up meetings may differ slightly. But, in a scrum-style stand-up meeting, team members answer three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday that helped the team meet its goal?
  2. What will you do today to help the team meet its goal?
  3. Do you see any blockers that will prevent you or the team from meeting its goal?

As Kimberly Gajda, Software Engineer for IBM, explains, “[In a stand-up meeting] Answers are given in the past or future tense. For example, "I completed this" or "I will complete this." 

Stand-Up Meetings and the Agile Methodology

As mentioned, the stand-up is a popular meeting for development teams practicing the Agile methodology.

But, whether or not that describes your team, understanding this methodology—and how the stand-up fits into it—will help make your meetings more effective. 

Put simply, the Agile methodology is an iterative approach to delivering a project throughout its lifecycle.

Agile stresses the establishment of a broad vision and continuous learning and adaptation. This is distinct from traditional project management which begins with and adheres to a precise project plan. 

For example, in traditional project management, the team tries to anticipate and plan for all obstacles upfront. But with Agile, project managers expect and react to unforeseen obstacles as they come.

Stand-up meetings originated in Scrum, which is one of many frameworks related to Agile. But they’re often used by teams using other Agile frameworks, such as Kanban.

The reason stand-up meetings are so critical to the Agile methodology is that they create an opportunity for continuous communication. In the same way, stand-ups can be key to improving communication at your organization.

Planning Your Stand-Up Meetings 

Think of stand-up meetings as a solution to the problems that occur when any group of people attempts to work together as a team. 

Therefore, at a high-level, stand-ups are useful anytime you need to do one or more of the following:

  1. Share understanding of goals
  2. Coordinate efforts between team members 
  3. Share problems and improvements
  4. Develop and strengthen the team dynamic

If you plan to implement stand-up meetings, make sure you’re doing so to accomplish one or more of these four goals.

When and How Often to Hold Stand-Up Meetings

It’s important to adapt your stand-up meeting plan to your team’s needs, particularly when it comes to cadence. 

In the context of Agile software development, stand-ups are held daily because work is typically done in relatively short sprints. So it may not make sense to copy this cadence for your team.

In fact, one of the most common complaints about meetings, in general, is that they’re held too often. So if it takes some time to find the stand-up meeting cadence that works for your team, that’s okay. 

Just make sure you’re not holding a stand-up for the sake of doing it. If you don’t need to reestablish a shared understanding of goals, coordinate efforts, share problems, or strengthen working relationships, you don’t need a stand-up meeting. 

As a rule of thumb, start with a less frequent cadence and increase it as needed.

What you Need for a Stand-up Meeting

Once you’ve established your initial cadence and the purpose of your stand-ups, you’re almost ready to run your first meeting.

What’s left is to ensure a shared understanding of and strict adherence to the meeting’s rules. 

It’ll also help to have some sort of work-item tracking system. A kanban board is a popular option among Agile engineers but a simple whiteboard with sticky notes can work too.

By visually displaying all work items, a work-item tracking system helps you avoid wasting time while familiarizing everyone with the work items in process.

In the next few sections, we’ll review the protocol of a great stand-up, define the roles of this meeting’s participants, and provide an agenda template.

The Stand-Up Meeting Rules

An effective stand-up typically lasts no longer than 20 minutes. But keeping a meeting to 20 minutes or less requires a laser-like focus. That’s why the rules of your stand-up are so important.

Kimberly Gajda, Software Engineer for IBM, lists the following rules for stand-ups:

  1. Each team member’s answers must align with the tasks assigned to them.
  2. Stand-up meetings must be concise; no longer than 15 - 20 minutes.
  3. Answers must be given in the past or future tense.

    Gajda says, “Using the present progressive tense, such as "I am working with XYZ," is considered poor form.” This information should be contained in the work-item tracking system.
  1. Answers must cover the time that has passed since the last stand-up.

    Gajda explains that if the task is too big to be contained in the time period since the last stand-up, report “what part of [the task] will be or was completed.” 
  1. Discussion about blockers and questions about what is being done must happen outside of the meeting.

Rule #5 is paramount because the point of a stand-up is to surface issues that need to be discussed while allowing those not involved to return to their work. 

If an issue is complicated, the parties involved should schedule additional time after the meeting.

The Stand-Up Meeting Invitee List

Stand-ups are designed to inform and facilitate collaboration between people from various departments. But this can lead to a long invitee list. 

And, as Jason Yip, Senior Agile Coach at Spotify, explains, people that aren’t directly involved in work items discussed can disrupt the stand-up. 

An easy way to cull your invite list is to focus on who’s needed to speak for the work items. In other words, if the potential invitee isn’t responsible for progressing a work item, they don’t need to be in the stand-up. 

Of course, sometimes it isn’t possible to keep your invitee list that concise. And it may be perfectly necessary for someone to attend just so they’re informed. In that case, ensure that spectators understand the rules of the stand-up to mitigate disruption. 

As Yip says, not everyone needs to talk, particularly if what they’re saying isn’t relevant to progress the work.

Finally, you’ll also want to keep remote meeting attendees in mind. As part of the team and the meeting, they should have a high-quality audio and visual set up. Ideally, they’ll also be able to manipulate the work-item system in real-time.

The Stand-Up Meeting Agenda

The agenda for a stand-up meeting is as simple as they get… as it should be for this short, high-powered meeting.

Below is a simple text version of our stand-up meeting agenda template with stand-up meeting questions listed out for each participant. Simply copy and paste as many sets of bullets as you need for your meeting participants.

Name

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Where are you blocked?
  • Comfort Level — How close are we to hitting our goals?

Name

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Where are you blocked?
  • Comfort Level — How close are we to hitting our goals?

You can also use this agenda in Hugo or download it for Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

Leadership’s Role in Stand-up Meetings

The stand-up is a team-focused meeting. To that end, leadership’s role is not to take over but to enable effective communication.

That could mean stepping in to enforce the meeting’s rules.

Or it could mean exemplifying the meeting’s rules with their behavior. For example, it can be empowering for team members to see their leader stand back when they have nothing to say that’s relevant to any work items.

Ultimately, when things go right in stand-up meetings, leadership’s role should be minimal.

Building Stand-Ups into Your Meeting Culture

Too often, teams abandon stand-ups because they’re implemented haphazardly. So if you want to run effective stand-up meetings, nothing’s more important than taking a thoughtful approach.

More often than not, an ineffective stand-up is a product of a lack of participation, preparation, or an unclear purpose. And it’s up to leadership to identify the correct time, place, and purpose for a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly stand-up meeting.

Just don’t expect to get it right on your first try. Keep improving, keep learning, and stay on your feet.


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Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

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