Refining the Daily Standup: The 4th Question

In a previous post, I spoke about dysfunctions in a daily standup that can derail its value to an Agile team, sometimes silently. But there’s another dysfunction I didn’t mention, one that may never show up unless you explicitly address it. My own war story in this area caused me to craft an addition to the standard three-question standup format that I use with every team: the 4th question.

To review, here are the standard three questions each team member should answer at a daily standup:

  • What did you do since the last standup?
  • What will you do before the next standup?
  • What impediments to progress are blocking you?

Before I talk about the 4th question, it’s important to understand the downstream value of the daily task board (or sprint board) as an “information radiator” and a reflector of truth. The board contains all the tasks the team has to complete to reach the sprint goal and, usually, how much time is left on those tasks. That information lets the Agile team leader (a.k.a. the ‘Scrum Master’) prepare the daily burndown, communicate to the Product Owner and stakeholders, and mitigate the risk or reap the benefit of where the team is in relation to the ideal. If it looks like the team will finish early or go long, the team and Product Owner can agree to add a story or remove an un-started story to adjust and maximize the team’s efficacy in the sprint.

To accomplish all this, the sprint board has to be accurate. One guideline I use with teams to ensure this is “Everything we have to do goes on the board, and we don’t do any work that isn’t on the board.” And to ensure accuracy, every day I ask the 4th question:

“Does the sprint board still reflect reality to you?”

It might seem like an obvious consideration, but it isn’t. You need to explicitly ask the question. People make mistakes. Their estimates may have been off at the start of the sprint, despite their best efforts.  They will likely discover new tasks during the sprint, or discover that some tasks are no longer needed. They may have relationships with stakeholders who ask them for favors…sneaking in a little more functionality, for example…and they don’t want to let the person down. All of these situations can lead to the sprint board missing tasks that should be there, contain tasks that are no longer relevant, or misrepresent (over or under) the amount of time/effort tasks will take.

My war story goes something like this: a large development team (~10 people), 4-week sprints. One day, about halfway into the sprint, one of the senior developers announced he was taking on tasks that totaled about 20 hours, to be completed the next day. This dialogue followed:

“20 hours of work by tomorrow isn’t physically possible, unless you don’t sleep.”

“No, it won’t take 20 hours. It’s more like 4 hours.”

“Why only 4 hours?”

“Well, I did some other work a week ago that the Product Owner asked me to do, and now this won’t end up taking as long.”

“Was that other work on the board?”

“No, I just did it.”

Had we known the Product Owner wanted more work done, the team might have been able to help. If the hours on these tasks had then been reduced, there might have been room for the team to deliver more. All this, let alone the one developer secretly committing to work on behalf of the whole team, or the Product Owner circumventing the process, put the team, the product, and stakeholder trust in our transparent metrics at risk. But when the 4th question is asked and answered every day, and you make adjustments, it realigns the sprint board, which lets it reflect reality, mitigates risk, lets the product Owner make well-informed adjustments, etc. You get the idea. It’s not rocket science, but is not asking this question worth the potential impact to your project?

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