The Silent Standup: An Alternative to Communication Theater

Is the standard standup redundant for “scrumban” teams?

In the degenerate standup, bored programmers sit with their coffee, fielding questions from the product people while silently judging latecomers. In this pathological case, the standup has been reduced to an instrument of discipline: because project state is clearly visible on Trello or Jira, the “three questions” serve primarily as a daily dose of carrot and stick. For less pathological teams, the highly-structured communication of the standup feels redundant, but the time-sync aspect of the meeting is still valuable, resulting in a zombie standup where any real communication is “taken offline”.

There might be a historical explanation for the redundancy of the three questions and the process flow board: the standup meeting (or “scrum”) and the flow board (or “kanban board”) originate from two different schools of agile. The three questions of scrum are designed for a team that doesn’t maintain a up-to-date, transparent representation of the stories making up the project (this idea of visible project state is the core of kanban, or “see-board”). Many teams practicing a mix of both scrum and kanban (so-called “scrumban”) probably continue doing standup not because it facilitates communication, but because it helps instill time discipline, which is core to the functioning of most teams.

This simplified form of “punching in” can be especially important for distributed teams, or as a way to create power distance between employees and owners of firms. It’s important to note who is exempt from (or not invited to) standup, because not being regularly held accountable for one’s time or (conversely) not having one’s work recognized as a “story” can shape team dynamics.

If you believe that agile is supposed to favor people and interactions over processes and tools, it’s worth rethinking the standup to reduce communication theater in favor of group well-being and efficacy.

The silent standup: all the syncing, none of the theater

I first became interested in the Neiyang and Zhanzhuang styles of Qigong when I came across scientific literature showing that the practices can increase self-control and self-discipline. For self-employed or self-directed workers, establishing control over work scheduling and prioritization is obviously critical to both happiness and effectiveness. I also liked that Zhanzhuan Qigong is a fairly embodied form of mindfulness practice: the core exercises are designed to release tension and align strength in the body, rather than prescribing an ideal mental state. “Zhanzhaung” literally means “standing like a post” (站桩), and that’s basically what it’s all about: learning to stand calmly. Because of these features, Zhanzhaung Qigong seems like a good fit for groups of modern knowledge workers suffering from sitting at a desk all day. The resonance between “standing meditation” and “standup meeting” is just a bonus feature.

Silent standup in the park

Practicing Qigong at a set time has been a good way to start days of work on Studio Visit. Weather permitting, we meet in the park outside the office, and spending about 20 minutes completing ten short exercises and two long standing poses taken from this book. After Qigong is over, the communication that standup is supposed to facilitate tends to happen naturally among the collected practitioners, if it’s necessary. I personally find that the post-practice sense of calm and discipline helps with proactively dealing with problems before they get hairy.

Silent standup in the park

Of course, practicing Qigong might not be a good fit for many (most) teams. Qigong is just one example of a group activity that could be used as a time-sync. A very different alt-standup practice observed on the streets of FiDi is the “man clump” used to get sales staff AMPED UP for a day of cold calling. Other, less annoying teams set aside time to journal each morning (my personal favorite artefact of this sort of practice is Brad Alan Lewis’s Olympic journal, “Lido for Time 14:39”. I think that anything that equitably creates a space for disciplined well-being and communication (they’re related!) should be considered as an alternative to the received standup format.

Silent standup in the park
Patrick Steadman
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