This post describes a simple, effective agile-based technique we’ve used at Leonid to enhance effectiveness across the whole company: the ‘Daily Do’. The Daily Do is a general-purpose adaption of an agile component called ‘the daily standup’.
If you’re already familiar with agile, I’d skip to the next paragraph. Agile describes a set of ‘adaptive’ software development techniques. These favor simple, human-understandable descriptions instead of lengthy specifications and daily interactions over more prescriptive long-term planning. Adaptive techniques stand in contrast to ‘predictive’ techniques which favor detailed planning across longer cycles. If you want to know more about agile, I recommend:
- Its Wikipedia page (brief intro.)
- Chapter 6 of ‘Starting a Tech Business’ (medium intro. presented in the overall context of participating in a tech-enabled business)
- Agile Excellence for Product Managers by Greg Cohen (great book-sized introduction for managers)
One component of agile is the ‘daily standup’, where team members answer three general questions:
- What did I accomplish yesterday?
- What will I accomplish today?
- What obstacles are impeding my progress?
In the absence of detailed, prescriptive project plans, the daily standup serves to focus and organize project participants against the projects tasks. The best practice is to keep the daily standup to under 15 minutes by making everyone stand and keeping it focused on the questions above, with ancillary items taken offline by the interested parties.
What we did
Leonid has four centers across four countries with several key employees scattered around elsewhere. Our engineering teams practice agile but we needed something we could use for the company at large to keep team members across departments focused and in synch. Since we have people in every US time zone (not to mention keeping different hours), the ideal mechanism was asynchronous, functioning well even if we didn’t all meet together- we’d been using email for general status updates. The group I needed to synch with included engineering managers, consulting engineers, customer advocates (account leads), salespeople, and administration (finance, sales operations). We’d tried a few things for status updates and priorities alignment; none of us were crazy about anything we had in place. What if everyone in the group emailed each other answering the daily standup questions above? What if we called it ‘The Daily Do’? After a few initial concerns and objections, we began to phase it in on a success basis and, almost a year later, so far so good.
The following is an example of my Daily Do from May 25th. Note: I’ve used brackets ( [ ] ) where I had comments or removed items that were ‘inside baseball’ (also, there are some edits for clarity):
What did I accomplish yesterday?
- Concluded meeting and follow-up’s with [Partner] on consulting partnership
- Investor meeting
- Prep’ed for [Customer A] Call
- [Customer A] Call
- [Customer A] follow up’s
- Posted priorities through to 5/25
What will I do today?
- Review possible consulting item with [Customer B]
- Prioritize backlog for Prov. and Portals [these are two of our products]
- [Customer] follow-up’s around sizing new features
- Stretch: get Visio on my Mac and draft first set of updated process diagrams
- Post priorities through to 5/28
What obstacles are impeding my progress?
- [Product Development Manager]
- Need rough sizing on new features for [Customer A]
- [Sales VP]
- Need outputs from customer meetings on [new roadmap item]
For a little contrast, here’s a Daily Do for one of our consulting engineers (again some edits for clarity):
What did I accomplish yesterday?
- Internal: multi-party calls now working now in lab [x]
- Internal: updated Linked-In buttons on book site
- [Customer X]: Initial planning for [their customer] deployment
- Internal: Triage [being first line engineer on trouble tickets from our customers]
What will I do today?
- [Customer X]: Support case ([xyz]): Reproduce billing Issue.
- [Customer X]: Further planning for [their customer] deployment
- [Customer X]: Talk with [customer staff] and schedule a Loki Provisioning upgrade for this weekend/next week and put the remaining bean state rules in place.
- [Customer Y]: update to custom utility per case ([def])
- Internal: update case backlog
What obstacles are impeding my progress?
I pair these Daily Do’s with a priorities email I send out each night- this has an ordered list of priorities for everyone that sends in a Daily Do. In most cases, this is just for urgent or project-oriented items. Our engineering managers know that their main job is to keep the current iteration on track; our customer advocates know they should look after their accounts.
Your mileage may vary. Would I do this if we were all in the same office? I would definitely try supplementing the Daily Do with an in-person daily standup. Our folks stay in touch on IM chat and phone pretty effectively but I think an in-person daily standup would be good for integration and cooperation. Would it still make sense for everyone send in the Daily Do email? Yes, I think probably so. Not everyone does well talking in groups and most everyone tends to underprepare (I include myself). Having everyone spend five minutes to think through what they’ll say in their 1-2 minute contribution to the daily standup would make it more effective and probably shorter.
The benefits we’ve seen from The Daily Do fall into four main areas:
1. Increased Focus
It’s easy to get distracted by seemingly urgent items that come up, particularly if you already know how handle them. For example, I see questions come in from customers all day long that I could quickly answer with the particular perspective I’d want on the response. I shouldn’t, though- I need to focus on the important (but less obvious) tasks I’ve apportioned to myself for the day and let the customer’s assigned manager handle the question. Speaking with my colleagues, their experience has been similar.
2. Better Alignment on Priorities
I send out an email to my direct reports with an ordered list of priorities (beyond their normal routine). This priorities email isn’t integral to the approach- some of the managers use Base Camp to maintain priorities with their teams, others use Bugzilla. However you maintain a list of priorities, The Daily Do is helpful for confirming the priorities and understanding the pace of their completion.
3. Better Cooperation
When everyone sees daily what’s blocking their colleagues, they’re in a better position to respond. For example, before we started with the Daily Do, I’d regularly miss emails to me from our architecture team and after awhile (too long) they’d have to bug me to respond, a distraction for both of us. At any given moment of the day, I’d probably invest my time in responding since getting new products designed is near and dear to my heart (and the company’s progress). Now when I read our head architect’s Daily Do and I see he’s waiting on me for a response, I’m reminded to make that one of the first things I do that day.
4. Reduction in BVA (Reporting) Time
No one likes spending time on internal reporting of any sort and it doesn’t deliver anything (directly) to the customer. In the world of business process design, this is called ‘BVA’ (business value added) time. BVA time is a necessary evil and as a manager your job is to minimize it, acknowledging that it’s never going to be zero.
For us, the Daily Do reduced BVA, primarily in the form of everyone pinging everyone else to ask the questions answered in the Daily Do. It also reduced ‘NVA’ (non-value added) time, which is time wasted on broken processes, having to wait for things, etc. The Daily Do reduced NVA by making sure anyone who got stuck got un-stuck quickly and that folks weren’t being asked to do things that weren’t on their priority radar.
Selling The Daily Do’
Selling the Daily Do is important- you of course want everyone to see it as something they can do to make themselves more effective, versus paperwork forced on them by management. Here are four tips to selling and on-boarding your team with the Daily Do:
1. Sell the Specific Benefits
I’ve found the fourth item above around reducing BVA time to be the most effective- ‘This is a way to keep people from interrupting you all day to find out what you’re doing.’
2. Lead by Example
You absolutely must do the Daily Do yourself. If you’re dealing with something that’s not for general consumption, describe it in general terms or just leave it out. If you’re a manager, you may have less discrete work items than your staff- also OK. As a manager, I spend most of my time up until lunch checking in with my team in quick ad hoc meetings, so my list doesn’t have as many discrete work items. That’s OK- they know I spend 10-30 minutes talking to each of them and that I do so for the rest of their colleagues.
3. Allow for Specific Exceptions
There will be days people can’t complete their Daily Do- travel, emergencies, etc. Describe what you’d like everyone to do in these situations (skip it, send it out later, etc.).
4. Diaper it for the First Two Weeks
You should set a specific time of day by which everyone should have sent their Daily Do. Check in with anyone who hasn’t sent theirs by then, particularly in the first two weeks.
5. Treat it as an Experiment
In classic agile/lean fashion, explain that the Daily Do is an experiment. You’re going to get it up and running and then after six weeks, see how well it’s working. If it’s not working well, you’ll can it. If you have multiple teams, you might pick the one you think will be the most successful in the shortest time, and start the Daily Do with them.
A few final things to watch out for- First, make sure the Daily Do isn’t a running to-do list. The items that are on ‘What will I do today?’ should be things that the individual realistically plans to do that day. I encourage my team to be ambitious but that if an item is on there more than two days, then to dial back the list some. Second, make sure you have a solid system for establishing overall priorities. It should be obvious to everyone sending in a Daily Do where they should find the list of priorities they pick to establish their hit list for the day.
Feedback? Ideas? Stories? Please post here or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.