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

by Niklas Nyholm

Shifting from individual contributions to team output in standups isn’t new, but it makes a world of difference in 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. 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, take a different approach, shifting attention and focus instead to 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.

Why Story-focused Standups?


Story-focused stand-ups emphasize team output versus that of individual team contributors. The overall focus shifts to advancing the work itself, placing it center stage, while the individual activities of any given ‌team member take a backseat. 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, as it can both shift power dynamics and 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, but changing the mindset to focus on team output will bring about better and faster results in the long run.

Laser-focus & Clarity


Besides the shift in mindset, story-focused standups allow for increased 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 multiple people have input regarding a ticket or story, they can all share information and updates while discussing that topic instead of information and updates coming up in a series of disjointed conversations.

Controversial and difficult issues will also become harder to ignore. In conventional standups, things can fall through the cracks if team members choose to not bring up tickets or issues that are blocked or challenging. A systemic story-led approach means that each ticket is addressed and blockers are unlikely 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.

You may find that pertinent information outside the scope of specific stories and tickets in progress can get lost. To make sure that doesn’t happen, it helps to check in with the team if there’s anything important to share or highlight after all the tickets have been discussed.

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.

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 you find that this approach doesn’t work for you and your team, you can simply revert ‌to the conventional 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 60 million monthly users.

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

Niklas Nyholm
Niklas Nyholm
VP of Engineering @Smallpdf