How “The Three Questions” Hurt Teamwork

Building solid, collaborative teams is a pillar of our ADAPTIVE© system for Agile transformations. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, playing a part in kicking off several Agile teams and seeing them go from “forming” to “storming” and gradually to “norming”.

One process element that all new Agile teams adopt easily is the daily standup meeting. Even without receiving Agile training, it’s the one thing everyone seems to know about Scrum. And you know what I’m realizing more and more? In its popular, standard form, it hurts teamwork.

Many teams think they are supposed to gather every day and that each person must answer three questions: What have I done since the last standup, what will I do until the next one, what’s in my way. Team members who believe this are likely to:

(1) not quite understand why this practice exists

(2) show up with little enthusiasm, rattle off status to the ScrumMaster, and space out when others are talking

(3) never really get to the third (and most important) question, which is meant to expose barriers to team flow

(4) complain about having too many meetings, and rail against Agile in general

These are just the observable effects. What worries me more is that even when people do listen to each other, there is too much emphasis on individuals and their progress on tasks. Who does what? Which tasks are done? Which tasks are blocked? There is little to no emphasis on the team achieving its goal and commitments — which, paradoxically, they do emphasize in the context of releases and projects.

Think about it. Teams use project charters to identify the business value they’ll add, given needs and constraints. They plan releases: what they’ll actually deliver, given a time-box. Every iteration, they identify a shared goal: working together, we’ll have produced X when the week or two are over. So when they meet daily and each person answers The Three Questions, the emphasis shifts to individual progress and appearing busy. That’s not teamwork.

I like to think of the daily meeting as a sync-up opportunity. It’s meant to refocus everyone on the shared iteration goal and have them organize and make micro-commitments to each other in support of that goal. When first designed, the Three Questions were meant this way, but the practice has become ossified and its purpose has been lost.

What can you do instead of having everyone answer these rote questions? Ask the entire team a different, single question: “What are we going to do next to maximize our chance of achieving the iteration goal?”

Sometimes, the answer will be “Continue what we’ve been doing.” Other times, it will be “We need to revisit the plan.” Most days, you’ll just review each open story (there should only a be couple of those, right?) and discuss which story to start once the in-flight ones are closed.

Change the tenor of the meeting to focus on goal and team, and not on tasks, and within a few days you’ll see the difference: not just in value delivery, but in collaboration and team growth.

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