When I first read about standup meetings, I couldn’t wait to try them. Just imagine: instead of slogging through long boring meetings, you could instead be a rebel, refuse to sit down, share what’s happening, and quickly get back to work. But as you’ve likely experienced IRL, standup meetings are more likely to become an unproductive fixture of the workday than an energizing jam session.
Over the past year I’ve been investigating how high-performing teams work together. I’ve learned that the excitement around standup meetings is gone. Instead, teams are finding better ways to share status without meetings. And with fewer meetings, teams have more time available for meaningful and productive conversations.
Standups are broken
Standups were designed to keep teams in sync, and they do work in some situations. For example, standups work when teams are small, in the same office, on similar schedules, and have overlapping skills. But today’s workplace looks nothing like this! Teams are getting larger, more diverse, and more distributed.
Imagine you’re starting your day with a typical standup meeting. Things are going smoothly until Paula begins her update about engineering infrastructure. You notice something strange on the video conference: Vivek, a designer on the team, looks frustrated. Why would this be?
Let’s consider it from Vivek’s perspective. As a designer, he doesn’t quite understand the technical issue that Paula is discussing. And even if he did understand, his design work isn’t affected much by engineering infrastructure. Vivek works across two teams, so this is the second standup he’s attended today. And it’s already 7:45pm in Bangalore, so Vivek would much rather be with his family instead of in a meeting.
Scenes like this are all too common. I’ve met people who attend 3 standup meetings a day. I’ve heard horror stories of 20+ person standups that take nearly an hour. And I’ve met misguided managers who use standups to get people in the office earlier than their schedule would normally allow. The workplace has pushed standups well past what they are suited for. That’s why you’ll now find many articles proclaiming that standups are a waste of time.
“It’s hard to come up with a bigger waste of money, time, or attention than status meetings.” - Jason Fried
Why not share written updates instead?
Many teams have ditched their standup meetings. Instead, they coordinate with daily written updates. Paula writes her infrastructure update and Vivek skims it the next morning. Voilá! No more wasted time on tiring late-night calls.
Written updates are great because they allow each person to read as much or as little as they need, they work well across time zones, they help share information across teams, and they create a record that’s useful for retrospectives. Even better, written updates promise a way to keep communication flowing smoothly as a company grows in size and complexity.
But if written updates are so great, why don’t all companies use them? Why don’t we all start our day with a written update to our team?
Writing a daily update is a habit, like any other habit. We’ve known for a long time that building a habit requires repetition and rewards. The problem is that most teams don’t design the experience of written updates to reinforce the daily habit.
No matter how much you might try to enforce writing updates with rules, it just won’t happen unless you design holistically to reinforce the habit.
Let’s think through what it would be like to write an update without any reinforcing structures in place. You take about 10 minutes in the morning, carefully gathering links to relevant work. But when you share your update, you don’t know if anyone appreciates your work, or if anyone has even read your update. You take a few more minutes to read updates from your teammates, which helps you know more about what’s happening. But it all feels so dry, and you miss that feeling of connecting with your team in person.
This experience is why many teams have trouble sticking with the habit. They’ll try written updates, but then slide back into holding standup meetings. Afterwards, they’re left wondering if there’s a better way.
How to build a habit of written updates
I co-founded Range to help teams work better together. We’ve been spending the last year focused on this exact challenge of helping teams build a cadence of communication through a habit of sharing daily updates. We’ve found that there are ways to design written updates to work well for teams and for companies at scale. There’s just a few things you need to get right to make the habit easy to build.
1. Write less, import more — Minimize the amount of writing that’s required to craft a useful update. For example, a good personal tactic is to bookmark all the sites that contain a record of your work. You can quickly check GitHub, Google Drive, and Asana to copy/paste a picture of what you’ve done recently. With our product, Range, we reduced the amount of writing required by integrating with the tools that people use. We found this had a huge impact on the quality and frequency of updates.
But just because something is easy to do, doesn’t mean it’ll get done. It’s easy for me to recycle an empty Amazon box. But my entryway is still filled with them. I’ll get around to dealing with those pesky boxes when I have a compelling reason to do so. The same goes for written updates. Teammates should have clear and compelling reasons why they’d want to share an update.
2. Celebrate great work — It’s easy in meetings to know when people are listening to you. When the room lights up with smiles, nodding heads, and applause, you know your work is appreciated. But when we communicate in writing, we often miss these important social cues. People won’t keep sharing updates if it feels like dumping work into a paper shredder. So build energy into the way you share updates! Find simple ways, like emojis and gifs, to let people know that you appreciate the work they’ve done.
Even if you do a great job celebrating work, you may still find that teams miss connecting in person. There’s always some banter before and after a meeting. What we’re finding is that small talk is actually crucial stuff. As teammates get to know each other, they increase comfort, build trust, and create psychological safety within the group. It turns out that psychological safety is crucial to having good communication on your team. In order to truly improve communication, written updates need to help people connect to their team as well.
3. Go beyond the work — Instead of sharing only what’s happening at work, people should feel welcome to share what’s happening in their life as well. As a manager, you can model this behavior by being open about how your own work and life connect. Because Range encourages this behavior, I’ll frequently see when teammates have gone on a rejuvenating run or have had trouble sleeping. As small as those things seem, they help me feel much more connected to my team.
The power of an update network
When you move status updates outside of meetings, you’ll save loads of time. And more importantly, you’ll get more value from the time you do to spend together.
At Range we’ve ditched standup meetings. Instead we hold a twice weekly “Collab Time” that encourages meaningful conversations about everything from technical implementation, to design reviews, to challenges we’re facing as a team. I’m so glad I’ll never have to attend another standup again.
But I’m most excited about the benefits that written updates can bring to large companies. As team sizes approach the Dunbar number (150 people), communication becomes much more difficult. We’ve all seen the patterns. In companies where information doesn’t flow freely, rigid silos start to form. In companies where it’s difficult to build trust, it’s impossible to get anything done.
Written updates, when done right, give us a way to connect in a more networked way across a large company. They have the power to break down silos, build trust, and help companies grow with fewer growing pains.
I hope you’ll experiment with ditching status meetings and moving to written updates with your team. I’m confident the tips above will be helpful, as they’re the same principles we’ve built into our product at Range. Please let me know what you learn along the way! You can find me on twitter at @kowitz. And if you’re curious to learn more about a tool that makes this journey a breeze, check out what we’re building at Range.