Written by Jess Reif
On the morning of August 14, 1914, the French military governor of Paris and commander of the Armies of Paris General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, called a meeting of his cabinet. This gathering was not an ordinary meeting. It was less than four weeks after the beginning of World War I, and German troops were already advancing on Paris. The General requested that his cabinet stand, rather than sit, and asked that they refrain from wasting time discussing issues related to whether or not to defend Paris. Instead, he asked the group to certify its existing plans to defend the city, and review specific tactical orders in order to speed up the process. The meeting lasted just fifteen minutes.
Nearly eighty years later, a team of software engineers at Easel Corporation rose from their desks with a different objective: to deliver a working piece of software to their customer, on time, with all of the promised features. Jeff Sutherland, co-founder of the agile management practice Scrum, led the team as they recited what they would do that day to move the team closer to its goal. The stand-up meeting had three rules: it was at the same time every day, it lasted no longer than 15 minutes, and all team members were required to participate. After just one week of adopting this practice, Sutherland observed a 400% improvement in the productivity of his team.
Stand-ups have unrivaled popularity in technology companies, with 80% of software engineers reporting that they take part in a daily stand-up in a VersionOne survey. Like Sutherland’s meeting, stand-ups typically last no more than 15 minutes and take place at the same time every day. The practice varies from company to company, with some organizations requiring participants to carry a medicine ball as they speak or imposing fines for showing up late, but the meetings share a single purpose: to ensure the team is aligned, progressing toward the objective, and that all roadblocks are removed as quickly as possible.
Published in 2001 by a team of 17 software developers, the Agile Manifesto outlines the ideal daily meeting. Stand-ups are held standing, rather than sitting, to encourage brevity and minimize distractions. During the meeting, each team member must answer these three questions:
- What did you do yesterday to help the team reach its objective?
- What will you do today to help the team reach its objective?
- What obstacles are getting in the way?
These updates enable the team to ensure that it is meeting its goals, that decisions are made in time for effective execution, and that it is self-organizing around problems. They are particularly effective in complex environments, in which the tasks of team members are interdependent and teams must adjust and reprioritize quickly. Stand-ups turn the frustrations associated with rapid change into opportunities for the team to collaborate and react collectively. Managers also leave the meetings with line-of-sight into the impediments their team is facing and what they can do to fix them.
The challenges of complexity and interdependent work are not unique to software, and are something nearly every business struggles with in the 21st century. Our company, CrossLead, surveyed over 10,000 employees from 12 different organizations working outside the software development space about the obstacles they face at work. Only 43% of employees say that their companies make decisions in time for effective execution, and 40% say their companies have a process for dealing with unexpected changes. The daily stand-up provides a solution to both of these problems, but has yet to achieve a major presence outside of software. Yet many non-tech companies that have embraced stand-ups report successes similar to developers.
The legal team at travel guide publisher Lonely Planet provides an excellent case study for how standup and other agile practices work outside of software. Prior to its agile transformation, the team was regularly working past midnight due to shifting priorities and drop-in demands from across the organization. Adding daily standups to their calendar allowed them to better manage changing requirements and realistically assess what could be accomplished that week. It helped them set clearer expectations with their stakeholders and illuminate the obstacles that were preventing them from working faster. The team credits stand-ups and other agile practices for its transformation from the most over-worked to the leanest entity at Lonely Planet.
Our team at CrossLead began running daily stand-ups with a California-based hardware manufacturer. Though leadership initially resisted adding another meeting to the schedules of their already-busy staff, a strategic offsite highlighted major differences in the priorities of the engineering and product management divisions, whose responsibilities were highly intertwined. The company attributed missed deadlines and customer attrition to a lack of collaboration between these teams.
The friction between engineering and product management was nothing new; the engineers focused on innovating new products and experimentation, while product management worried about business case for each change and how customers would react. Introducing cross-functional daily stand-ups integrated these teams so they could communicate their changing priorities and understand the consequences of shifting their timelines. The result was increased coordination between the business units, and speedier delivery to customers. Additionally, the daily meeting created personal relationships between individuals who had previously seen each other as roadblocks. They shared more information proactively, rather than reactively as they had in the past.
Like with General Galieni’s standing meeting in 1914, stand-ups are tactically focused and designed to ensure that team members have the information they need to execute effectively against a pre-determined objective. Though the meetings themselves are tactical in nature, adding them to your calendar is a strategic move. It encourages them to speak openly about their priorities. It empowers them to self-organize around their challenges. And most importantly, it enables the team to adapt and meet the changing demands of reality faster.
 Tuchman, Barbara. 1962. The Guns of August. Dell Publishing Company.
Jess leads our Analytics Team, expertly managing our statistics and analytics processes. She creates tailored organizational performance diagnostics and network analysis for clients, to help them better understand how their organizations are functioning.
Jess comes to CrossLead after diverse experience in the management consulting industry. She graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Industrial and Labor Relations.