Stand Up Meetings May Not Have Some of the Benefits You Think They Do
In the world of agile project management, there are few things hotter these days than the stand-up meeting. These daily scrums are meant to keep the team focused and on track, but a new Harvard University study finds that while they might help execution, they’re having a detrimental effect on innovation.
“Innovation has to be both valuable and novel,” says Andy Wu, assistant professor of business administration in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. “And what standup meetings do – and more broadly agile practices as a whole – is they create value at the expense of novelty. That’s a fine thing to have, but you’re not getting the new ideas you might expect when people think of the word innovation.”
Stand-up meetings got their start in the world of software development – and they continue to have a place there, says Wu. They weren’t created to foster innovation; they were tools to rapidly build software products. Still, a cult of personality formed around them in other parts of the business world and managers began to believe they helped teams develop revolutionary concepts.
“The appeal of stand-up meetings is that they typically encourage participants to finish the meetings more quickly because everyone is standing,” explains Brandon Smith, a faculty member at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “The discomfort of standing creates a level of heightened urgency to complete the meeting more rapidly.”
The pandemic has made stand-up meetings a lot less commonplace, as telecommuting has become the norm across most industries. (Wu’s study was done prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.) But teleconference meetings are, in some way, similar. There’s a level of discomfort that makes participants want to finish them quickly, which keeps participants focused.
The nature of stand-up meetings, though, and their fast-paced nature, prevents participants from having a chance to come up with unique ideas.
“Every meeting realigns the goals of the organization,” says Wu. “Where you might have had several teams maybe with different ideas and different views, they are coming to the meeting every day and forced to realign to one goal. And what that does is minimizes the variants of ideas that could exist. And you lose some of the novelty that might come from an individual person digging deep and exploring.”
Another problem: Stand-up meetings (as well as remote working conditions) replace didactic conversations – instructional talks that usually happen between meetings. The remote work environment is exacerbating that issue, making ad hoc one-on-one conversations between coworkers even less common. (It’s not common practice to Zoom people randomly when you’ve got an idea.)
Of course, any sort of meeting has its downside. Traditional conference room gatherings are often a waste of time. Conference calls are frequently hard to understand, with people talking over each other. And the goal of both is very similar to a stand-up meeting – to herd employees to pursue the same goal, which eliminates the novelty of ideas.
For the record, current meetings are even worse.
“The Zoom meeting environment is, I think, the worst of all worlds – in that you’re forcing everyone together, but it’s not quick and it’s not a collaborative environment,” says Wu.
“In many ways, virtual meetings are very similar to stand-up meetings,” he says. “There is the discomfort of being on camera which is very similar to the discomfort generated by standing. While these types of meetings are useful for getting through agendas quickly, they do a poor job in the areas of innovation and relationship building. The focus tends to default to ‘get through the agenda at any cost’.”
Despite all of this, stand-up meetings aren’t bad things – just misunderstood. In many cases, it comes down to what phase a company is in. While they won’t do anything to help idea generation or innovation, they can help move things along when a plan is settled upon.
Hackathons, or other free-form brainstorming sessions, are an incubator for creativity. And they can help a company create innovative products that move it forward into the execution phase, which is when manager might want to consider implementing stand-up scrums.
“Let’s say you have a couple of good ideas that come out of a hackathon,” says Wu. “And you say ‘We’re going to put stand-up meeting teams around implementing these ideas and bringing them to market. That could be very effective. … [A stand-up meeting] is separate from the innovation process. It’s for commercializing an innovation, but only after you’ve already generated the innovation.”
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