Distributed We Stand Together: Common Practices with Agile Teams

Author, Mark Kilby

Agile Manifesto

Daily stand-ups are a common practice with agile teams. It’s quick and no-nonsense so people can get back to work. For distributed agile teams, this meeting can be much more.

With most agile teams that are face-to-face, the daily stand-up (or scrum) meeting lasts no more than 15 minutes and allows team members to check in with each other on how they are meeting the commitments for an iteration of work (called a “sprint” in Scrum terminology) and then plan their next steps to keep moving those commitments forward. With teams that are co-located, it is recommended that team members stand up so that the meeting is kept as short as possible.

The Three Questions

There are typically three questions that team members answer to their peers:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What am I doing today?
  3. What’s blocking me (if anything)?

Once everyone checks in and people with impediments know where to get help, the huddle breaks and team members can jump back into their work.

The Distributed Team

For a distributed team, the daily huddle can serve multiple purposes. The actual “check-in” runs just like described above. With some of our distributed agile teams, most of the huddles last between 6-8 minutes for teams of 5-7 people. We are in, check-in and done.

But there is much more in to our daily huddles. As we go “around the room”, folks can ask for a “post scrum” topic and who they might need in this discussion. Once the scrum is done, those who need to talk in more detail about an issue or a design decision have the opportunity to stay on and collaborate with colleagues. This can become an open meeting time for these conversations that are sometimes more challenging to set up ad-hoc with a distributed team. Also, it’s optional. So if some team members have pressing work they need to re-engage with, they can do it right away. What I typically see is that most of the team stays on for post scrum topics as they are interested in what their remote team members are wrestling with.

Also, the daily huddle becomes a bit like a gathering at the town square. Some show up early on the call and this gives them a chance to check in on what’s happening beyond the work. We will often compare weather in our locations, or what’s happening with favorite sports teams or who is sick or well in our families. Sometimes we’ll even do a bit of socialization post scrum. In the role of scrummaster, I absolutely allow this for my distributed teams because I find individuals and interactions are always more valuable than process (ala’ the Agile Manifesto).

Typical Questions

Some typical questions I get when I describe this modified daily stand-up for my distributed teams:

1. How long do these take with all these add-ons?

My answer: most days, it’s less than a 10-minute call with some follow-up in our team chat channel later. Other days, we don’t go more than 30 minutes (our actual reserved time in our calendars).

2. Do you actually stand-up like some face-to-face teams?

My answer: I don’t know and I’m not worried about it. The team keeps these calls as long as they need and as I said in the previous answer, they usually keep them short and focused. The post scrum time is reserved for them to hash out details they want to discuss when then need to discuss certain issues as it’s not always easy to get the whole team together since we are not co-located.

3. How do you determine how team members go “round the room”?

My answer: First team member on the call, gets to go first. Then you get to call on the next team member. Some days we mix it up as we have some folks that always show up early on the call, but most of the time it is self-organized as I just described. Most of the time, the team starts on their own. No scrummaster or coach needed, unless impediments pop up that the team can’t handle (very rare).

4. How do new people adapt to the process?

My answer: They seem to plug in quickly. We just had a few new folks join our teams recently and we invited them to a few different daily stands ups so they could see different ways they are run. In the post scrum section of the meeting, they asked questions about how it is run. Team members helped answer how it works for them. It seemed to work well as a way to ramp up new team members, but I still like to check in with our new folks to see how it worked for them.

What other questions do you have regarding distributed team stand ups? What other ideas or steps do you use with your distributed teams? I would welcome hearing your thoughts.

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Mark Kilby

Agile software project mentor helping organizations achieve profound productivity, increased quality, and intense customer loyalty to rapidly adapt and thrive in today's marketplace. Interests include organizational change breakthrough methods, collaboration techniques and technologies for distributed and co-located teams as well as automation of software construction to allow developers to focus on craftsmanship and quality.

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  1. John Schultz said:

    My team uses poker planning cards to randomize the order of who speaks at our daily standup. I noticed we had a regular order that occurred, starting with our manager and moving clockwise from her. It takes just a minute for the five of us to draw cards and determine the day’s order.

  2. Mark Miller said:

    John, I like that one. I’m in the process of creating a unique deck, so it would be fun to create a set of cards just for the purpose you describe.

  3. Mark Kilby said:

    John, it does help tot mix it up occasionally. Any ceremony done the same way week after week can lose it’s meaning. So changing up the order of team members, changing the classic 3 questions, or something else to remind participants why they are there to collaborate are important. Otherwise, why do it? Thanks for your comment!