Burn-in and the Standup

Has your daily standup become empty and rote?

June 22, 2020

One challenge in running highly periodic meetings like daily standups is burn in. Burn in is different than burn out; people aren’t tired, or overworked, they’re simply incapable of hearing and answering the same old question in a new way.

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

“I worked on ticket #2322. I’ll hopefully finish it today or tomorrow. No blockers.”

It’s just like an old cathode-ray monitor burning in the image of your desktop if it never changes. Speaking and hearing this same incantation, from every team member, day after day, makes us unable to honestly hear and assess the questions or our answers. They become rote speech acts, and lose any meaning behind the words.

If you think this might be happening to your team, return to the reasons why you have a stand-up in the first place: to reveal blockers, yes, but hopefully your team won’t wait a full day to take action on a blocker just so they can mention it at standup. Standups should also:

  • De-silo knowledge (“Oh, you’re working on that feature? I know a trick, let me show it to you today”)
  • Encourage collaboration (“I don’t know anything about that; can I sit in while you work on it?”)
  • Give the team a sense of shared purpose (“Ah, your feature and mine will interact once they’re both deployed; we should double-check that they play nicely together”)
  • Reveal upcoming dangers (“That’s not a blocker yet, but it will be in a day or two.”)

These are just some potential purposes of a daily standup. Think about your own organization, and what things you need your standups to achieve.

Now think of the myriad ways to accomplish those goals, and start adding variety to your format. You don’t need to hit every goal every day; just cover them all well enough on average. If a standup is everyone answering one or two questions, then here are some new questions your team could ask — even if it’s just one day a week, pick out a new question and listen to the response:

  • What is one question you have about the project?
  • Who needs help?
  • Who do you want to help?
  • What part of the project do you know the least about?
  • How has your understanding of the project changed this week?
  • What are you most looking forward to? What are you least looking forward to?
  • What are you worried about?
  • What have you learned? What do you need to learn?
  • How do you feel about your work?
  • What’s most likely to go wrong this week?
  • What have you contributed lately that you’re proud of? Embarrassed by?

You may decide try this, ask a new question, and discover that your 15 minute standup suddenly runs 45 minutes. That might make the experiment seem like a failure — 45 minutes isn’t a standup! — but your team actually had something to say. That’s a big win, and now you just need to manage moving those additional conversations outside the meeting so the standup itself can remain brief. You might remember having this same problem way back when you first started doing standups; if someone had a blocker, that blocker got discussed and solved live in the meeting, while the people uninvolved sighed and shifted uncomfortably. You’re brought your team back to that place — you’ve made standup fresh, so they’re acting like it’s totally new. It will take some reminders, and some practice, for everyone to remember how to manage the time once they’ve started listening and thinking again.

But that seems like a good problem to have.