Critique of Critiques of Daily Standups

In HackerNews, I read yet another write-up on daily standups and how they suck. Periodically, a post pops up on daily standup and how it is a nuisance. This entry of mine is an attempt at importing the importance of daily standups and how it adds value. We will also look at some of the familiar oppositions to daily standups and why they hold no water.

All posts on daily standups have a fundamental problem. They shy away from tackling the elephant in the room. I am also guilty of this in my take on daily standups. At some level, meetings are a forced collaboration attempt. In an ideal Utopian world, where everyone excels in collaboration and communication, we would not need meetings. Sadly that world does not exist.

Now that we are done away with addressing the uncomfortable truth, let us go deep into why daily standups are essential.

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Timely and efficient communication and collaboration can make or break teams. Humans display a diversity when it comes to communication, some excel at it, and some are bad at it. Sometimes, you might not genuinely know you need to communicate or that you are a blocker to someone’s work.

A primary reason for project failures is unmet dependencies and someone not planning for them. When you get people together and create a platform for them to discuss and collaborate, blockers and dependencies which would have gone unsaid otherwise surface.

How many times has it happened that someone raises a red flag on the day a project is supposed to go live? A daily standup ensures a constant feedback loop wherein this does not come as a last-minute surprise.

Daily standups ensure that everyone in the team knows what their counterparts are working on; this prevents people from becoming islands and ensures everyone knows the big picture.

As an organization, how do you develop this habit?

One of the paradoxes in life is that rules set you free, help build good habits, and reduce cognitive overload. Giants in the field of behavioral psychology – Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, B. F. Skinner; all support this. The general prescription to start a good habit or break bad habits is to create a strict set of rules.

Another trick to aid good habits is to design your environment to support the practice; remove obstacles that prevent you from getting into the said habit. Putting it succinctly, make it easy to start and sustain a habit. Charles Duhigg and James Clear have written books on this.

Scheduling daily standups at a specific time with a well-understood format does both the above; it makes it easy and creates an environment for teams to cultivate the habit of collaboration and communication.

People who rally against daily standups tend to be:

  • Great at communication and pro-actively do it.
  • Individual contributors who excel at their work.

These people operate on individual bits of information and do not see the entire picture. From their narrow perspective, they are correct, but modern workplaces are not only about individual brilliance but more to do with teamwork. An automobile will not function unless all the parts work in tandem; the same goes for a team.

The majority of people do not know how to run efficient meetings; as a result, people have developed an aversion to meetings. This general distaste towards meetings has given the daily standup a lousy reputation.

Paul Graham talks about the maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule and how it is paramount that makers get a long uninterrupted chunk of time to create things. To avoid the context switch, schedule daily standup at the start of the day before everyone gets immersed in their work.

Most workplaces are chaotic. Daily standup gives you the means to bring order to the chaos.

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Photo by Paulo Carrolo on Unsplash

Zen and the Art of Mind Tricks

All of us wish to be in a state of zen. We desire to be cheerful and have a positive frame of mind. We aspire to be clean of bad habits. We want to calm our monkey mind and experience a higher conscious.

Let alone achieving these, we find it tough to start.

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Below are mind tricks which help.

Timeout

Whenever you have an urge to do something you have resolved not to, do not give in instantly. Have a timeout after which you decide.

You have decided to go on a diet. An enticing scoop of ice cream is in front of you. Instead of immediately succumbing to your impulse, count till sixty. After that, decide whether you still want to gulp that scoop. In most cases, the urge would have died by then.

Reframe

Reframe unpleasant events in an empathetic manner; this nudges us from a feeling of angst to compassion.

We all go through bad experiences in life. Someone cuts us in traffic; a sales representative is rude to us. Whenever you have frustration creeping in due to things outside your control, reframe the situation.

The person who cut us in traffic is in a personal emergency and is trying to get somewhere. The salesperson, who was rude to us, is going through a terrible phase in her life.

Reframing a situation put us in a humane mode which drives away antagonistic thoughts.

Detach

Detach yourself from a frame of mind you do not wish to be in and observe your thoughts as a third party.

You want to meditate. You are not able to calm your monkey brain. Do not self-berate. Observe your fleeting thoughts as a third person. Do not curse your inability to control your mind. Watch the rise and ebb of ideas — the simple act of detaching and observing helps to calm the mind.

None of these tricks are my creation; I have summarized them in my own words. I have seen these repeated in various forms by experts in the field of psychology, wellness, and spiritualism.

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Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Designing A Great Meeting Room Experience

This post is a thought experiment in designing a great meeting room experience. This post will not go into the productive ways to conduct meetings but will deal with the mundane yet essential logistics part of meetings.

We will try to design the experience based on a couple of simple, timeless principles:
1. Nudging people towards proper behavior – Libertarian Paternalism.
2. Not relying on one’s will power to do the right thing – Ulysses Contract.
3. Designing the environment to influence productive behavior.

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Here we go; this is more of a listicle than structured prose.

If you want someone to do something, make it easy for them to do it – following this principle, it should be effortless to book a meeting room. The booking interface should list all the meeting rooms and the available free slots. It should also inform all the facilities a meeting room has like video conferencing, the capacity of the room, etc.

Outside every meeting room, there should be a display of the schedule for the day.

One of the often irritations is you landing up for a meeting in a room that you booked well in advance to find a paper sticking on the door saying the room is blocked for some critical visitor; this sort of overriding should be restricted to only a very few rooms.

How many times has it happened to you that you get up during a meeting to write something on the whiteboard to find the marker and the duster missing? A meeting room should be well-stocked with stationaries so that people do not have to step out in the middle of a meeting to fetch them.

There should be a large wall clock in every meeting room so that everyone is conscious of time. Even better would be a countdown timer which gives an auditory signal when the end of the meeting is near.

There should be a designated place in all meeting rooms to dump phones and laptops. One of the biggest distractions during a meeting is the constant barrage of notifications on devices and the pavlovian reaction to them. Do not rely on people controlling their will power to overcome this but design the right environment for people to achieve this.

Even though meetings have come to be associated with unproductivity, I believe collaboration and brainstorming are essential for crafting the right product. It is paramount that you do everything possible to facilitate communication and discussion between teams; this might make or break your product.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Deviation From Expected

Someone sitting at a distance asks for the water bottle near me. I pick up the bottle and throw it at that person. Surprisingly, the cap is not screwed. Water splashes all over. When a bottle has its cap on, we usually expect it to be tightly screwed. When something deviates from the expected, unless there is an indication saying so, it creates trouble and confusion.

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The same principle applies to systems and application design. For example, let us say that you have a development server where someone is running a production cron job. Since this is a development server, someone might take it down for experimentation. No one expects the non-availability of a development server to have untoward consequence.

Whenever you deviate from the expected, ensure you scream from the top of your voice so that no one misses it. Documentation, common conventions and putting in the right processes are some of the ways to mitigate this. The best is not to do it. Whatever you are doing, it always helps to ask, is this a deviation from the expected? If I am not part of the inner circle, would I expect it to be like this?

Resolving Disagreements

When you disagree with something, either you do it because you think your idea is better or you want to keep your ego intact. Let us ignore the latter and focus on the former where the intention is to let the best idea win. When a group of people sit down and try to resolve disagreements, many a time, it goes nowhere. Sometimes you get this strange feeling of things going around in a circle. This is due to whataboutery and shifting goal posts. You start with an objective, as the discussion progresses, statements lead to counter statements and at the end, no one knows what they are trying to resolve.

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A straightforward hack to keep discussions on track is to write things down. Project a shared document where you note the objective and the point of contention. Whenever matters go awry, point people to the shared document; this helps everyone involved to stay focused and not to shift goal post as the discussion progresses.

Irrespective of how rational and mature one is, when someone disagrees with something that one believes to be true, one tends to become defensive and shift goal post without truly being aware of it. Writing things down makes one aware of this and helps course correct.

My View

I was looking at Jimi wallets online. Someone peeked at my laptop and asked what it is? I explained it is a rugged waterproof wallet. The other person’s immediate reaction was – Why would anyone need this? This person has never faced the fury of rain while cycling outside.

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Whenever I explain startups spending marketing dollars to acquire users even when they are not generating any profit, I get a stunned look from people coming from a traditional business background. It is difficult for them to grasp the concept of betting on explosive future growth at the expense of today.

Phil Knight, in his book Shoe Dog, writes a lot about how his bank was asking him to preserve capital when all he wanted to do was grow Nike at all costs during its fledgling years.

A lot of prolific US citizens opinionated that Trump had a naught chance at US presidency. The same goes for Brexit.

What is common in all these situations is a difficulty in viewing the world from a lens not tarred by our own experiences. Even if you want to do this, it is tough to implement because you do not know where to draw the line. Tomorrow, if a person tells you that she has invented the perpetual motion machine, what do you do? Do you dismiss it outright or be skeptical of this person’s claim?

In all these scenarios you have to suspend your rational mind and view things from a radically incongruent perspective. It is easy to write this but extremely difficult to implement.

Micro Versus Macro Solutions

Imagine a person who walks from her home to office. Frequently she is late to work as she takes time to cover the distance. She wants to improve her pace. She goes to a walking expert to get tips on increasing her walking speed.

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One solution to the problem is to use some other means of transportation instead of walking. If you go to a walking expert, you are going to get tips on improving your walking speed. The expert is not going to ask you to forego walking and use a different mode of transportation. Also, if you are deeply attached to the idea of walking, you might not think of a solution beyond walking. Improving your walking speed is a micro solution whereas using some other means of transportation is a macro solution.

The above is a contrived example but something we come across in our professional and personal lives, both as solution givers as well as ones facing a problem. Programmers sometimes try to optimize the hell out of a piece of code while the right approach might be to chuck the code and use something else. Organisations seek to nail down a process to the last mile while a sensible solution might be to do away with the process entirely.

We lean towards micro solutions when we are either deeply entwined in a problem or are the domain expert in that particular area. In these situations, we tend to think within the bounds of a problem and not outside.

When you come up with a solution, bracket it as micro or macro. Being aware is the first step towards becoming better at anything. Also, an outside view helps. Find someone who is not an expert in the domain or one who is not acutely aware of the problem. Run your solution through them. They might lead you to a macro solution or make you aware that what you have is a micro solution. Taking time and mind off a problem helps too like how Archimedes had his eureka moment.

Last but not the least, take a walk.