The Only Agile Meetings You Need

Some places “do agile” because it’s the cool trendy thing that tech companies do nowadays. Their teams are usually mandated to do Scrum, which they take to mean two-week cycles with 2-3 hours of stand-up meetings, maybe 4 hours of refinement, 1-2 hours retro, another hour of sprint planning, another to demo, another higher-level roadmap meeting. That’s 10 hours of meetings even before you include all the ones you “took offline”.

Then, in 2020, we all went remote, and a lot of us stayed at least partly remote. Now we continue these categories of meetings and miss the essentials.

After working: in Scrum, Kanban, several hybrids of those, startup cowboy totally-making-it-up-as-we-go; in an office, fully remote, some hybrid of those; in one timezone, with people 2-3 hours ahead, 5-8 hours behind; with and without outsourcing; as a developer, tech lead, even playing the Product Owner role for one year; I’ve come to the opinion that you only need two meetings:

1. Daily Team Sync

Start with the classic daily stand-up. Walk through the board from right to left and find out what the team needs to solve together.

But allow it to meander. Don’t bother trying to keep this to within 15 minutes. In fact, sit down, we might be here for an hour. If a blocker arises, discuss it, take a few minutes to solve each problem. This can take a few different turns:

  1. I’m stuck on this bit of code. Sometimes a small dose of pair programming can unblock this. There might even be time for the whole team to dig into that right now, but if not, no worries, a couple of you can work it out after this meeting.

  2. The requirements are unclear, the scope has creeped. In this case, we just need a little mini backlog refinement on that particular task.

  3. I’m probably gonna need some more work to pick up. Good problem to have, right? Sounds like we need a mini sprint planning. Not that we’re really doing sprints, just that this is where we prioritise what needs doing and move it to the “to do” column.

This is as agile as it gets; solve the problems that need solving when they need solving, and don’t solve problems you don’t need to. Don’t spend dedicated time discussing the minutia of a story, making sure it has the right user story format, for example

As a customer, I want this copy to be spelled correctly, so that I don’t think badly of this product.

I’ll bet your developers still get the copy-change right without that. I’ll bet you all estimate it at 1 story point without much discussion. Spend that time on the things that matter instead.

  1. We need estimates for a future task. You might not see these tasks on your Kanban board, but it’s essentially the column before “to do”.

You might find another problem though.

  1. We have no problems - everything is on track. You could end the meeting here if you want. But don’t. Have a bit of fun! Play some games, get to know each other better. You might spend more time with each other than some people you’d call friends, so it’s worth making an effort to make it pleasant.

2. Fortnightly Celebration

There are useful Scrum ceremonies that we probably don’t want to do every day. But, in the same spirit as above, we can roll these into one event with a central theme – take a look at what we’ve done, celebrate it, and learn from it.

Block half a day out for the whole team every week or two.

In Public

This time a demo is the starting point. It’s a nice opportunity for the team to bring everything together, show-off a little bit and be proud of their work. It could be a live demo or preparing a recording.

Again, this can lead you in a few directions:

  1. We learned something about our product. Update the roadmap. Let everyone know where you’re heading next and why.

  2. We want your opinion. Ask for feedback. Users and stakeholders should have continuously been involved in the development process, providing feedback throughout, so there shouldn’t be any big surprises, but perhaps seeing it all together sparks something different.

  3. We did a thing. Celebrate your success! Cheer for your teammates. Order in some pizza and beer if that’s your thing.

In Private

Then close the doors, go to a different call, or stop recording. It’s time for the retrospective.

  1. Have some fun! Maybe you didn’t get a chance to during the daily meetings, so this is a great time to. Retros can sometimes get a bit heated even when they’re totally blameless, so plan a little ice-breaker first; set some time aside to learn about each other’s hobbies or play some games together. Strengthen the relationships in the team and build some trust.
  1. Discuss what has happened since the last time and decide how you could improve. You can discuss the process itself. There’s no real agenda, so I like a lite version of the Lean Coffee format where people suggest topics then vote on them. There should be actionable output.

The Difference

But all you did was replace 10 hours of meetings with a different 10 hours of meetings.

Except it’s much more flexible.

  • Someone missing in a meeting? No problem; use tomorrow’s meeting.
  • Need to schedule an “emergency refinement”? You’ve already got one.
  • “Let’s bring that one up in refinement”? You’re already in it.
  • Want to reduce meeting time overall? Try 45 minutes per day instead.

Nothing works for every type of team, including Scrum. I’ve worked in many teams that started with a Scrum template and gradually evolved into different things through inspecting and adapting the process. What I’ve described here is the simplest and most flexible starting point. Why start with six ceremonies when we can start with just two? And if the team later concludes we need a separate meeting for a special purpose, then we can always add that in.