The tale of the 50 minute stand-up

I would like to ask, what in the fuck is a stand-up meeting? Because nobody I work for seems to know the answer. In a company I recently worked for, a stand-up meeting consisted of 10 minutes of waiting for everyone to show up, then 15 minutes of everyone scrambling to make up an update that will satisfy their superiors, all followed by a 30 minute discussion by said superiors about bullshit minutiae that nobody else gives a rats ass about but must suffer through anyways. When I hear people sing the praises of Agile methodology I want to shake them and call bullshit. Of course, the reason I feel this way is probably because the company I worked for did not really use the Agile method as it was meant to be used.

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So, according to Agile methodology, why do we all have to suffer through this crap on a daily basis? Why is this the thing I loathed about my last job (even more than the goddamned retros) more than anything else, more than the boredom, the constant emails and calls, and my complete lack of benefits, vacation time, and work-life balance? Hell if I know, but if I was a gambling man I would put my money on this: stand-ups at my company were a huge, rotten, festering waste of time that felt like being in a high school social studies class. You are always expected to contribute but you don’t care about any of the shit being said and none of it helps you and it slowly kills your soul.

I remember very few stand-ups that actually followed the many definitions of a stand-up meeting I have read. I have listed a few so that you can get the gist of what a stand-up was meant to be.

  1. Wikipedia: “A stand-up meeting…is a meeting in which attendees typically participate while standing. The discomfort of standing for long periods is intended to keep the meetings short.”
  2. Technopedia: “A stand-up meeting is a team meeting organized on a daily basis to present a status update to all a development team’s members…The term “stand-up” comes from the practice of standing instead of sitting, simply because the discomfort of standing up for a long period keeps the meetings really short.”
  3. Agile Alliance: “Each day at the same time, the team meets so as to bring everyone up to date on the information that is vital for coordination. This meeting is normally timeboxed to a maximum duration of 15 minutes, though this may need adjusting for larger teams. To keep the meeting short, any topic that starts a discussion is cut short…”

A few notes. First off, I would like to stop calling a daily meeting a ‘stand-up’ if the members are not even on the same continent, let alone the same office. I have never had a so-called ‘stand-up’ in the presence of other people because the company I worked for had teams in 4 countries and everyone worked from home. Maybe we can call this kind of meeting ‘Daily Updates’ from now on?

Next point of interest: Since we didn’t have to follow the pain in our legs for timing, why are ‘Daily Updates’ not being timed? Why does it inevitably turn into the manager blathering on for 30, 40, 60 minutes? It’s probably because nobody wants to cut the boss off, especially if said boss has a tendency to make work personal.

The ‘stand-ups’ I endured clearly deviated from what a stand-up was originally supposed to be. Here is what I remember from most of our stand-ups:

  1. 5–10 minutes: Waiting for everyone to actually show up. Manager often delayed meeting after it was supposed to have started by an hour or more.
  2. 10–15 minutes: People actually gave updates about what they were up to and asked questions, although this was aimed more at the superiors than at peers.
  3. 10–40 minutes: The manager would give an update and get carried away into discussion with developers, clients, or all of the above.

Something is very wrong when stand-ups even get close to hitting the hour mark. It makes it painfully clear that the higher-ups don’t actually give a shit about agile methodology (not that I really do either) beyond its ability to push employees to work harder to meet tighter sprint-based deadlines. Woo-hoo, progress.

When I think more about it, I remember the most absurd stand-up I ever had the misfortune to participate in. The meeting was delayed a full day 5 minutes before the meeting was supposed to start, then delayed by an hour the next day, and then to top the whole thing off the stupid meeting itself went on for 60 minutes. I think I was half asleep the whole time and I definitely remembered none of the content because my time was not being respected at all and very little of value was actually said.

On that note, I just want to clarify one thing. Sure, I did not ever have a stand-up with other people in the room. But I certainly stood during many stand-ups, since they were like little stressful recesses in which I could wash the dishes, fold laundry, or feed the dogs. The only thing I couldn’t really do is actually work because that would require focus that was being spent on listening to make sure my name didn’t come up.

Of course, maybe I was just a shit employee. I probably was, so let’s ask somebody else. The Agile Alliance, which sounds like they should be an authority regarding Agile methodology, has this to say about common pitfalls when running a daily stand-up:

“Perhaps the most common mistake is to turn the daily meeting into a “status report” with each member reporting progress to the same person…

…a second common pitfall is a daily meeting which drags on and on…

…a third common issue is a team finding little value in the daily meeting…

…this often reveals a lukewarm commitment to Agile”

Well, shit. Nobody ever told me that. If you had asked me to define a stand-up six months ago I would have told you that a stand-up is a meeting in which a bunch of people take turns appeasing their boss before having the pleasure of listening to the boss micromanage everyone for at least 15 minutes.

And don’t question my commitment to Agile. Is it a religion now? You can count me out of that; I have no commitment to Agile. Agile was simply used as a tool to squeeze as much value from the underlings as could possibly be squeezed. Agile held no value for me as a worker but instead opened the door for a flood of bullshit. I’m glad I’m not a developer — Agile methodology seems to be really useful when building a digital sweatshop.

I don’t, by the way, think Agile is bad. I think Agile can work great when it is implemented correctly and the values of peer-to-peer sharing, collaboration, and adaptation are held by everyone, especially the managers. In fact, in the company I work for I saw Agile work really well for a different team working on a different, smaller project. They worked closely together and got shit done. They seemed to love it.

But let’s go back to the ‘commitment to Agile’ I mentioned above. Just because a company says that it uses Agile does not mean that it actually follows Agile methodology nor does it mean that the people running the company actually understand what Agile really is.. Did my company really adhere to the Agile ideology? Is the yellow snow really lemon-flavored just because I say so? I don’t think so.

What are the takeaways from this, for any manager who happens to be reading this article?

1. A stand-up should not wait for anyone. When it happens, it happens. I should not need to wake up at 6:45am for a 7 o’clock standup with a team halfway across the world, only to need to wait another 10 minutes for everyone else to show up.

2. Standups are not for explanations and are not for discussions. Standups are for updates and questions directly related to the updates. Nobody wants to sit around and listen to a few people discuss things that are not relevant to anyone else in the group.

3. If a boss/manager/higher-up is in the meeting people are going to try to cover their asses. There is no way around this apart from bosses not being in stand-ups with their employees.

4. If standups tend to run 30 minutes too long and I am expected to attend three or four a week, that is at least a couple hours a week in which I am staring slackjawed at my computer screen with my mind in the clouds, excluding a few little moments relevant to myself and my team. Just keep that in mind.

5. Stand-ups are not meant to be status reports to management. I have never participated in a stand-up that did not take the form of everyone giving management a report of what they did, about which management would ask questions and, well, manage. This flies in the face of what stand-ups are supposedly meant to do.

Agile sure sounds nice in principle but makes some gross misunderstandings about human nature that make implementation nightmarishly difficult. Oh well. At least I can get the dishes done.

Written by

A writer living in the PNW who just wants to tend to his garden.

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