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Shifting Focus: How Story-focused Standups Can Create Better Teams

by Niklas Nyholm

You can also read this article in Portuguese.

Moving from individual contributions to team output in standups isn’t new, but it makes a huge impact on building better teams. Here’s how…

Daily standups are a familiar and integral part of the daily workings of software engineering teams across SaaS organizations. They’re essentially really short daily meetings (thus done standing rather than sitting) to discuss a project’s progress. Niklas Nyholm, VP of Engineering at Smallpdf, shares his experience challenging the conventional setup of standups by placing the focus on stories.

(For the purpose of this article, “story,” “item,” and “ticket” are used interchangeably.)

Conventional vs. Story-focused Standups


Conventional daily standups put the focus on individual team members and usually involve everyone on the team taking turns to go through their activities and updates and highlight blockers. Story-focused standups, on the other hand, adopt a different approach, focusing instead on tickets and stories.

Instead of team members taking turns going through their priorities and tasks, the team goes through each story in turn, and team members chime in with updates and input pertaining to that story or ticket. The interactions are more focused on the item and the whole process becomes more streamlined and result-oriented.

Why Story-focused Standups?


Story-focused stand-ups emphasize team output versus that of individual team contributors. The general focus turns to moving the job forward, placing it center stage, while the individual activities of each team member take a backseat. Considering the purpose of standups, contributions and accomplishments of individual team members shouldn’t take a role center-stage anyway. This approach isn’t new and has been discussed by software developer and international public speaker Martin Fowler and Mike Cohn, one of the contributors to the Scrum software development method, among others.

Changing Dynamics & What To Expect


A change in standup approach can be a little unsettling for teams and will take some getting used to. After all, moving away from individual contributions of team members can shift power dynamics as well as prove challenging for team members who may be less hands-on with concrete deliverables and sprint commitments.

Teething-pain & Shifting Mindsets


Product and engineering managers, who typically spend a significant chunk of their time in meetings, interviews, and 1:1s, might go from being the most vocal to having minimal airtime during standups.

This change may be uncomfortable in the beginning, especially for those usually not too involved in the standups, but changing the mindset to focus on team output will bring about better and faster results in the long run.

Laser-focus & Clarity


Aside from the shift in mindset, story-focused standups provide enhanced clarity by streamlining the conversation—and everyone’s input—on one item at a time. This way, it’s always clear which item is being discussed, and there is no abrupt change in topic or context. If one ticket or story involves the work of multiple people, they can share their information during this time. The conventional method, on the other hand, means that bits and pieces about an item are contributed in disjointed conversations, making it hard to keep track of all relevant information and updates.

Controversial and difficult issues will also become harder to ignore. In conventional standups, things can fall through the cracks if team members choose not to bring up tickets or issues that are blocked or challenging. A systemic story-led approach means that each ticket is addressed. This way, blockers aren’t as likely to go unnoticed, helping the team tackle issues faster.

Challenges & What Can Go Wrong


This approach to standups isn’t without its challenges and drawbacks. But if you know what to look out for, you can effectively manage the shift without too much trouble.

It’s possible that essential information outside the scope of individual stories and tickets in progress can get lost. To make sure that doesn’t happen, team leaders can check in at the end of the ticket discussion and ask about any other important issues or highlights that may not yet have come up in the standup.

Another issue to be mindful of is individual performance and wellbeing. It may become harder to spot team members who may be struggling with their workload outside the scope of the specific deliverables being discussed. An open feedback culture and championing an empathetic and safe team environment will encourage individual members to share their concerns with the team and during their 1:1s with team leaders. Generally, scheduling regular 1:1s and discussions about the team’s wellbeing and possible pitfalls can help to prevent issues from building up and enables a good work environment.

Next Steps


If you’re interested in trying story-focused standups in your next sprint, you’ll be happy to know that the process is very easy to experiment with and implement. If this strategy doesn’t work for you and your team, you can simply revert to the traditional standup approach—no harm done.

In Smallpdf’s Acquisition & Engagement team, we’ve found story-focused standups to be a much more productive and impactful approach, helping us stay on track and allowing us to give so much more to our millions of monthly users.

Interested in more articles like this? Check out our engineering blog for more.

Niklas Nyholm
Niklas Nyholm
VP of Engineering @Smallpdf