Play #2 - Standup Meeting

During transactions, new information, responsibilities, and dependencies arise constantly. Without proper team communication and collaboration, these emergent conditions can easily block important deal progress and lead to irreversible miscalculations. Establishing an effective cadence of meetings between team members to foster sufficient communication is therefore vital to deal success.

In traditional project teams, it is common practice for the entire team to meet once a week to discuss progress, as well as to address any developing challenges or issues. The project manager usually leads the meeting and collects status information from each individual. Structuring meetings in this way is laborious, and an inefficient use of time; often the topics of discussion are not relevant to many members of the team, who nevertheless must take time out of their workday to attend. When meetings are only conducted once a week, updates tend to be long, and important issues easily become diluted. Meetings are often not organized in a way that fosters cross-functional collaboration, as they are not thoughtfully structured and attended by those team members who can collaborate on dependencies. If additional meetings are called during the week, it is usually to address a problem. Waiting to address an issue not only creates further complications, but also prolongs project timelines and slows important progress.

By contrast, Agile teams commonly to hold a short meeting at the beginning of each workday, usually known as a “daily standup.” The standup meeting helps to maintain a high degree of alignment established by the kickoff meeting. During a standup, every team member gives a brief description of what they are currently working on, focusing on challenges and areas with dependencies. This meeting enhances communication and cross-functional visibility and helps to keep everyone working a deal aligned with each other while encouraging collaboration to address challenges. Holding a brief meeting once a day affords the team the opportunity to identify and address issues early, preventing minor concerns from growing into major problems.

Expert Opinions:
“I’ve worked very fast-moving deals and I had a standup with the CEO every morning to talk about the top things that I know that my team's going to ask for today. Immediately after meetings with the CEO, I had one with my cross-functional teams to kind of bookend them. We kind of got rid of checklists because we just had conversations, and I usually followed up with an email about the three or five things we need to focus on today. That was a really fast-moving deal here at Google and that was how we got it done.”
James Harris, Principle of Corporate Development Integration at Google

Ultimately, every business, team, and deal is unique. In many instances, it may be unnecessary, counterproductive, or simply logistically impossible to conduct standups on a daily basis. If you find this to be the case, try moving the meetings to every other day, or holding them bi-weekly. The objective is to set a cadence that meets your team’s immediate operational needs.

The regular cadence of the standup was developed as a direct response to conventional meetings, which are often only held “as needed.” Conventional meetings are often called only after a problem arises and needs to be addressed, and, as a result, these meetings tend to be lengthy and negative in tone. Teams that assemble daily at standup meetings, however, are better equipped to anticipate and work collaboratively to solve problems that may arise, which ensures a smooth workflow and more positive interactions. The regular cadence of meetings also allows individual team members to maintain an up-to-date picture of their colleagues’ workflows, which in turn makes it possible for the team to function in a truly Agile manner. Whether or not standups are held daily, they should be routine and conducted in closely spaced intervals as is consistent with the Agile approach.

When organizing a standup, consider following this structure:

  1. Establish a time and place for the project team to meet, preferably in the morning. Encourage employees to remain standing during the meeting to improve focus, engagement, and succinctness.
  2. Have each attendee share the current status of their work, focusing on items that require help from others. Typically, team members are asked to briefly answer three questions:
    - What did I complete since our last meeting?
    - What will I be working on until our next meeting?
    - What challenges am I facing?

Ideally, each team member reflects on what they need to discuss before the meeting begins. This helps to keep each individual contribution succinct and minimizes the likelihood that speakers will accidentally omit important information. By preparing points to be discussed, team members will also be more focused on what their colleagues have to say, without the distraction of preparing their own talking points on the spot. When a team member describes a challenge they face, they should be prepared to identify other team members that may be able to provide assistance. The relevant individuals should then coordinate after the standup to determine an appropriate course of action.

Expert Opinions:
“As a team, you should talk to each other once a day. Talk to each other when things are going well and when things are not going well. The anti-pattern is only talking to each other when things are failing, so it is always tense and stressful. Somebody is always blaming somebody for not having done something or not having done something properly. That creates bad relationships. Imagine that you only talked to your significant other when something was going wrong — this is all negative feedback all the time. That is not the basis of a successful relationship. The same is true for work teams. If you only talk to each other when things are going wrong, it is all negative feedback all the time and it is not the basis of a good relationship or good results.”
— M&A Science Interview with Richard Kasperowski, Author, Consultant, and Harvard Instructor

The duration of the standup can vary considerably based upon the number of members in the group and the nature of their work. Ten to fifteen minutes is sufficient in most cases. Some meetings can take longer, but the team should avoid meetings running on for more than half an hour. Keeping the standup short and succinct helps team members align and coordinate, without cutting significantly into their workday. Even when conducted daily, standups are meant to ultimately save time by limiting the need for those lengthy traditional meetings and by solving issues before they arise.

Tips and Strategies:

The key to an effective daily standup is to keep it as short, informative, and free-flowing as possible. Long and disorganized meetings are notorious attention-killers. For successful standups, try the following techniques:

  1. Set a routine. If meetings are called only “as needed,” the team falls into a pattern of waiting for a problem to arise before a meeting can occur. The purpose of the standup is to meet regularly to best adapt to the evolving needs of your team, and to anticipate issues before they become problematic.
  2. Remain standing. It is called the “standup” for a reason! When everyone is seated, meetings are likely to drag on and team members will lose focus.
  3. Keep your share relevant to the team as a whole. One-on-one talks can happen anytime throughout the workday. Team members selected during the standup to provide assistance on certain tasks can coordinate with each other once the meeting concludes.
  4. Keep your PM tool visible. Maintaining visibility ensures that everyone is aware of the current state of the project and remains engaged with the PM tool.

In some working environments, it may not be possible for team members to physically meet at regular intervals. Whether spread throughout a building, different cities, or across the globe, teams will need to employ tech tools to hold their standups. A quick morning conference call or video chat works well in this situation. Some teams even opt for a dedicated channel within a chat tool, such as Slack.

For a temporary, project-oriented group like a deal team, the standup is critical to fostering an Agile atmosphere. To understand why this is the case, consider the unique challenges presented by the M&A process. Due diligence and integration are highly informationally complex. For the sake of convenience, teams tend to organize checklists by functional areas. In reality, however, any company almost always has a complex and intricate network of dependencies running between functional groups. When teams work in silos, these dependencies can be overlooked. This holds true not only in the context of M&A but for all cross-functional corporate projects — and managers often strive to “break down the walls” between silos to encourage cross-functional visibility.

It is important to be attuned to dependencies from an early stage. Begin the project by kicking off an analysis regarding the standard dependencies that occur in every acquisition, as well as the particular dependencies unique to this acquisition. It is rare that further dependencies will be identified later following a thorough analysis at the outset. Laying out dependencies in this way ensures that the team will resolve them.

While it’s easy to talk about “breaking down silos,” meaningful cross-functional visibility is very difficult to achieve. A team must meet two preliminary conditions to realize true cross-functional visibility:

  1. Every team member must have a general understanding of the roles played in the project by the other members of their team.
  2. Every team member must be aware of the current progress of different functions.

The standup provides a structure for realizing these criteria simply and effectively. The constant flow of up-to-date information from each area helps individual team members to develop a detailed picture of the project as it evolves. In turn, this helps each individual to understand the role of their work in relation to their team members and to contextualize their contribution within the project as a whole. A team empowered by this type of mutual insight and shared vision is extremely effective and is capable of spotting challenges and dependencies invisible to more traditional teams.

Moreover, the standup is extremely simple to apply. Detailed knowledge of Agile principles is not necessary to run an effective standup. The concept can be explained to any employee in a few minutes, and conducting the standup itself requires a very small investment.

Key Takeaways:

Value Proposition: holding an effective standup meeting reveals issues and risks early, and promotes teamwork

How to put it in play:

  1. Communicate the objectives
  2. Share successes and obstacles
  3. Coach the team to solve problems quickly and to ask for help where needed

Anti-patterns to avoid:

  1. Excessive analysis or problem-solving during standup
  2. Delaying escalation of impediments
  3. Continuing to work a problem for several days instead of asking for assistance