The one question not to ask at the standup meeting

What is the very first question one is supposed to answer during a standup meeting? If your answer is:

What did you do since the last standup?

then congratulations. You have given the canonical answer recommended by Mike Cohn himself. But I am now convinced that this is the wrong question to ask.

When you ask someone What did you do?, you are inviting an answer along the lines of:

I worked on X.

The problem with this answer is that depending on X, you really don’t know what the team member has achieved. Consider the following possibilities, all perfectly reasonable answers to the question:

I worked on the ABC-123 issue and it is going well.

I worked on some unit tests for this story.

I worked with [team member Y].

You simply cannot tell if any progress is being made. Sure, you can ask for clarifying questions, but this will prolong the standup. Instead, I wish to suggest a slightly different version of that first question:

What did you get done since the last standup?

Here the emphasis is on what work was completed, not on what has been “worked” on. The deliverable becomes the object of the conversation, not the activity. The answers above don’t answer the question anymore, and this is what you might instead hear:

I tested and rejected 3 hypotheses for the cause of the ABC-123 issue, but I can think of at least 2 more.

I wrote a custom function for testing object equality and converted some unit tests to use it.

I paired with [team member Y] and we […]

Ambiguity and vagueness during the standups have regularly been an issue for our own team, and I am sure we are not the only ones. If you have fallen into the habit of asking the first version of this question, consider trying the second version and let me know (in the comments below) how that works out for you.

Author: David Lindelöf

David is currently Chief Technology Officer at Neurobat AG where he leads the development of smart, embedded systems for the energy-efficient control of indoor climate. He lives infinitesimally close to Geneva in Switzerland with his family.

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