Think outside the circle

You’re in stand up. Standing[1] in a circle. The project manager asks, “does anyone have any updates”? The PMs eyes roam the room, person to person. “Who wants to start?” A volunteer steps forward and asks for clarification on a nebulous business requirement[2]. This is good. The meeting is now underway, and if starting is half the battle it might even be half way over. The PM looks at the person to the left of our brave volunteer. That person is you. If you’re like most people you feel pressure to say, something. If you have something that needs to be shared this moment is easy, but if you don’t… You might be tempted to recap what you did yesterday (often the same thing you do everyday, and easily inferred by your job title), or ask a question that could better be handled in chat or email. This process continues all around the circle and with each person there is the risk that they too will share an unnecessary update that tacks a few more moments onto the clock.

While on a scale from stubbed toe to world peace this is a trivial frustration I believe it can be solved, and furthermore that the solution can introduce several additional benefits.

Try this next time your team has a stand up, or a similar meeting where general updates are provided. As they enter the meeting space, try asking the participants to write their names on a list (maybe on a whiteboard) if they have something they’d like brought up with the group. Once the meeting starts the PM will move through the list giving each person the opportunity to bring up whatever they had in mind. Of course, if something comes up organically that’s fine to discuss. The idea is to eliminate both the awkward, “who wants to start” moment, and the time drain that occurs when people feel put on the spot and compelled to say something.

There are some additional benefits that come with this approach. The expectation that you know as you enter the meeting whether you have something to share, and that that expectation is physically manifested by adding your name to the list should increase the level of preparedness and consequently the quality of the contributions to the meeting. It may even encourage some people to resolve issues before the meeting when they recognize that possibility when thinking about things ahead of time. Furthermore, the system encourages participants to arrive promptly to each meeting so that they have the opportunity to get on the list.

This system can also be altered so that the list is constructed digitally. This is necessary when the team includes remote workers. This format can also provide a record of what was discussed.

We’ve been experimenting with this recently at CaringBridge and our stand ups have improved. I’ll return to this post if we gain any further insights.

  1. If you’re not standing in your stand ups you really should try it.
  2. Issue 107: We like what you’re doing with the log in page, but could you do it better?