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3 anti-patterns to avoid in your standup culture at all costs

Standups are a tool for aligning and unblocking, not for controlling

December 10, 2020

As Henry Ford once noted, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Every team is made up of individual contributors who bring valuable insight and expertise to the table. And research shows that effective teams communicate, collaborate, and support each other openly and more frequently. For knowledge workers especially, this type of team effectiveness is not only reflected in management and processes, but also in company culture. How you meet, socialize, and trust one another has a huge impact on productivity.

The standup meeting, for example, was born from an acknowledgement of this very idea — to bridge the gap between what each person on a team knows and doesn’t know, allowing them time to share, work better together, and feel closer. It feels almost crazy to imagine that countless standup meetings do exactly the opposite. Many end with people feeling unsupported, like they were “forced” to attend, or like the meeting was a waste of time. It’s often rooted in the culture of an organization, and a lot of it stems from something called anti-patterns.

These patterns range from managers having the wrong priorities for the meeting to teammates (ICs) not feeling like they can raise issues freely. This not only impacts productivity, but morale as well.

Here are a few simple steps you can take to deal with these anti-patterns at work that may be preventing your team from maintaining alignment and performing to its highest potential.

What's an anti-pattern?

Basically, it’s a common response to a recurring problem or felt need, but usually ineffective and often very counterproductive.

They can be hard to spot, and are often clouded by business-as-usual practices. But they should be named and countered whenever possible, and when it comes to standups, three in particular you want to look for on your team.


1. Anti-pattern: Standup meetings for gathering information

As a manager, it can often feel like there’s a lot happening on your team. There might be multiple projects in flight, each with several contributors, separate timelines, and different external stakeholders. In order to keep things running smoothly, you need to understand what everyone has done and is planning to do.

Naturally, a standup meeting is the perfect place for a manager to gather all of this information from their team members, right? Wrong.

While every thread of work that’s happening on your team might be relevant to you as the manager (as the person who needs to see how they all tie together), each detail isn’t equally relevant to each of your team members.

One of the key advantages of a team is to divide work up and allow greater focus for each team member. A standup where every team member hears every detail of everyone else’s work goes against that advantage. When team members are forced to listen through long status updates about details of work that are unimportant to them, they tune out. Over time, they’ll come to dread and even resent the meeting because it doesn’t respect their time or their needs.

Did anybody miss the meeting today? Well, now you can’t gather information from that person. And they don’t have any way to catch up on the information shared that was relevant to them!

To solve this issue, try to find other venues for detailed information-gathering, like smaller workstream meetings or asynchronous written status updates. Range works great for this, because teammates can write detailed updates that can be read on an as-needed basis and referred back to the update later on.

This will free up your standup meeting to focus on just the information that’s relevant to keeping team members aligned and unblocked in their work — which will likely be less info than the sum total of everything you need to know.

Encourage team members to say, “This isn’t relevant to me. Can we move this to a smaller discussion?” when a standup gets a bit off the rails. After all, the standup is there to serve the team members, so they should feel free to speak up when the meeting isn’t doing its job.

2. Anti-pattern: Standup meetings tied to physical objects

When teams are co-located in the same office, it’s common to use the office space as a form of shared memory. At a past job, I saw teams use a whiteboard to track projects with rows representing projects, columns representing phases of work like “Ready, In Progress, Done”, and sticky notes representing individual pieces of work. During standup meetings, the team would go through each project and piece of work, moving the sticky notes around and using them to prompt alignment and spot blockers.

Manipulating physical objects feels satisfying, and having a team’s work physically laid out in space can help everyone to see the big picture. What could go wrong? Turns out, quite a bit.

Bringing on a fully or partially remote teammate would either severely disadvantage that teammate or require a complete rethink of the process. The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards remote work that was already in progress, and it seems like the post-pandemic norm will be at least a hybrid of remote and in-person work for most companies.

But even if your team is fully co-located, it doesn’t mean that everyone is always in the office. When teammates can’t be physically present, they can’t participate as equals. For example, when a teammate needs to work from home because of a doctor’s appointment or a childcare issue, they’ll only be able to see the physical aspect of standup as a tiny, grainy video, if at all. They may not be able to remember what they’re working on without messaging a teammate and asking for a photo of the current state.

Also, if the office cleaning crew misses the “do not erase” note, it can wipe out the team’s shared memory with one accident! And by depending on physical objects for your process, your team’s productivity will be less resilient to unforeseen events, like the office being inaccessible due to a rodent infestation or a global pandemic.

To address this, consider using electronic, cloud-based tools to support your standup process. This could be a Google Doc, an Asana board, a Jira project, or just your Check-ins in Range.

If you want to keep fun physical objects in your workspace to boost morale and align the team, make them redundant with cloud-based information and keep them simple.

  • Good: Colorful number wall magnets that you can use to spell out a key team metric each week by referencing an online dashboard.
  • Bad: Spending 30 minutes each day to copy your team’s Asana board onto a whiteboard by hand.

Making sure your standup process is equally accessible from anywhere in the world will make your team more resilient and efficient, even when you’re all together in the same place.

3. Anti-pattern: Standup meetings as attendance enforcement

As a manager, it’s sometimes hard to tell why progress isn’t happening as quickly as we’d like. It could be due to unforeseen complexities in the project, blockers that aren’t being raised, uncontrollable life circumstances that take time away from work, or any number of other things.

Without processes and norms in place to gather information, raise blockers, and share distractions, it can be hard to tell what’s going on. In these situations, it’s tempting to focus on “butts in seats” as a proxy for productivity, and standups can seem like an effective way to enforce that approach without actually stating it directly. If a team has in-person-only standups at 9am and 5:30pm each day, then people will be physically present in the office for more hours of the day and more work will get done, right? Wrong.

Using standups to enforce attendance represents a fundamental lack of trust in your team members, and they will get the message. When your team members don’t feel trusted, it will decrease vulnerability and lead them to hide things, which will further harm trust. A high level of trust on teams is one of the key predictors of productivity.

“Butts in seats” isn’t a good measure of productivity, it’s just a lazy one. You need to have better ways to assess the effectiveness of your team members than just whether they’re in the office each day. This attempt to control your team members isn’t equally compatible with all people or life stages. For example, a team member with children will likely struggle to get their kids to and from school on time and still attend standups. Imposing this type of rigidity will likely lead to a less diverse, and thus less effective team over time.

People aren’t productive in unbroken, 8 hour blocks each day. Especially for knowledge work, productivity ebbs and flows throughout the day depending on the person. By attempting to force attendance during specific hours, you’re making it more likely that your team members won’t work when they’re feeling productive or inspired outside of those hours. Plus, the standup is not for your benefit, it’s for theirs.

Trust your team members to get their work done. If you find you don’t trust your team members, then work on building trust, not on systems of control. Develop ways of assessing productivity that are more direct, focusing on actual output instead of just attendance. And don’t over-index on one type of output. Time spent planning, learning, and supporting others on the team is also productivity.

Expect that productivity will ebb and flow over time. Instead of seeking to punish low productivity, be curious to learn more about what that team member might be experiencing. Normalize sharing how people are showing up to work on your team, and how this affects productivity. Starting a daily standup or a weekly meeting with an opening round can be a good venue to share things like “My pet is sick, so I’m a bit distracted this week caring for them” or “I got a lot of sleep this weekend, so I’m feeling especially focused today.”

The right patterns for effective teams

By avoiding these anti-patterns and staying focused on maintaining alignment and addressing blockers, you’ll turn your team’s standup from a resentful chore to a productive and even fun moment of togetherness.

What anti-patterns have you noticed in your own experience of standup meetings?

Share them with us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook, and we’ll add them to this article.

And check out our Guide to Standup Meetings to learn more about the ins and outs, and how to get them right for your team.


3 anti-patterns to avoid in your standup culture at all costs
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