08 August 2009

Charging Fees for Tardy Meeting Participants is Avoiding the Root Cause

In order to deter people from showing up late to their daily "Scrum" or "stand-up" meeting, some teams charge the culprit(s) a fine, or make them do some embarrassing activity (such as singing) for the team. Some teams use the money to buy lunch for the team once a month or so. (If that's you: Please stop it! You're rewarding the wrong behavior.)

It may be effective, at first, but if there's a habitual lateness by an individual, or usually someone is late (though not always the same someone), then there's a deeper problem: The meeting is not considered valuable to the team.

I was just asked about this, and it showed up as a LinkedIn discussion, so here's what I wrote:

First, let's make a distinction between being late for work, and being late for a stand-up meeting. I think they need to be addressed separately. I only want to address the latter for now, because it's primarily Agile-specific. Stand-up meetings (they last at most 15 minutes, and everyone stands), are a core practice for Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) teams.

Stand-up meetings that are scheduled first thing in the morning tend to be detrimental to the team: both to the latecomers and to those who usually show up 1/2 hour before the meeting. For those who usually get to work just a little before the meeting, you will find that you really cannot get enough accomplished in that 1/2 hour. Sure, you could just boot your machine and get some coffee; and morning rituals like this are entirely manageable in that amount of time. But expecting to make significant progress on a project task in that time, though, is a lot to ask of yourself. You're guaranteed to be interrupted, and you're going to be anticipating the interruption.

Also, what I worked on yesterday is a fading memory (assuming I went home, and slept well). If I wrote myself some notes, then I have to find those before the meeting.

These fees and amusing punishments are often (appropriately) recorded in the team's working agreement (aka "Rules of Engagement"). This avoids punishments that are randomly delivered and arbitrarily chosen. But note that people can agree to do things that are still rather obnoxious for the individual or team. Someday, no matter who you are, you will be late for a meeting. Fees, singing, etc. may work if you have an entirely socially comfortable team, but let's face it, we're still publicly punishing the latecomer, possibly punishing the team (they have to listen to someone sing?), and probably wasting more of the team's time. Isn't there an old adage about avoiding forms of amusement that requires the discomfort of another? (If not, there should be.)

Instead, motivate the team or individual by finding out why the stand-up seems less valuable than a few more minutes of sleep (or twitter-time, or whatever). Fix the root cause, not the symptoms.

Getting Specific

I encourage teams to have the stand-up before lunch. 11:45am comes with it's own natural motivation for keeping the meeting short (Everyone's hungry!). Mid-afternoon may also work well. Around 2pm or 3pm, perhaps. 4:30pm is getting a little late for those who arrived at 7am, or who have to pick up kids at daycare.

Start the stand-ups on-time. Don't wait, even if the CEO said she'd stop by today with your VC Angel and President Obama in tow. It's not their meeting.

If you're late, don't ask to start over, even if you're the Scrum Master/Project Manager (it's not your meeting, either) or PO/Customer (ditto). If you're really late--or the team feels that lateness is simply too disruptive--then skip it entirely. You know, there will be another tomorrow.

Find an Impartial Observer

The daily stand-up reveals much more than project progress; it exposes the attitude of the whole team and the pathologies of the whole process. If your stand-ups are dull, too long, frustrating, mechanical, or contentious, then hire an external Agile coach (preferrably moi) to observe them for a few days. You likely have deeper problems than a few tardy developers and no funding for pizza day.