Stuck in an overlong Agile stand up? Try the two hands rule

When working with Agile teams the daily stand up meeting provides a heart beat to the day and an opportunity for team members to share information. Stand up meetings work best when they are short and balance the inputs across all the people in the team. A common problem is stand ups that start running too long.

Raising two hands in a stand up

When two hands are raised then it's a signal to move the stand up meeting on

The Two Hands Rule

Sometimes the conversations at stand up can get too detailed or go on too long. For these situations we’ve introduced the “two hands” rule; if anyone thinks the current conversation has gone off topic, or is no longer effective, then they raise a hand. Once a second person raises a hand then that’s a sign to stop the conversation and continue with the rest of the stand up. Those speaking can continue the conversation after the stand up has finished.

This approach makes it easy for people to share their view on the effectiveness of the conversation in a way that reduces the risk of causing offence. It also provides a way for the team to detect and correct its own behaviour.

I introduced this idea recently to a team who agreed to give it a try. In a stand up a few days later I was talking with a team member and didn’t realise that our conversation had got too detailed and gone on too long. I missed seeing that two other team members had put their hands up. It wasn’t until one of them spoke up that I noticed! This is one of the characteristics of difficult conversations; we often become blind to signs, easily spotted by others, that the conversation has become ineffective. By agreeing with the team to use the “two hands” rule they helped me detect when they thought I’d become ineffective.

The technique can have some downsides though. It can feel direct or confrontational, especially when people first experience it. It’s important to discuss any issues after the stand up and consider reviewing the practice in a retrospective.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Have you had stand up meetings that have taken too long? What approaches have you used? If you’ve tried something like the “two hands” rule, how did it go?

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About Benjamin Mitchell

Hi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

24 responses to “Stuck in an overlong Agile stand up? Try the two hands rule”

  1. Nathan Bain says :

    One of your best ideas! I have brought it along with me to my new employer – they love it too.

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      Great to hear Nathan! I introduced this idea after catching up with Matt, James and Peter and I remembered that it worked well in that team.
      Did you have any issues introducing it with your team? Any improvements?

      • Nathan Bain says :

        No issues at all. It’s such a simple and natural way to interject during a long monologue/discussion. The obvious improvement is that the standups are shorter, more focused and therefore not so draining.

        I haven’t noticed any issues. I don’t think anyone has been offended by it – it’s easy to get lost in your own train of thought from time to time.

  2. Matt Wynne says :

    I’ve used a similar system with yellow and red index cards as the signals. Brandishing a yellow card is just silly enough that it rarely feels confrontational, plus you can use the card itaelf

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      I like that you encouraged a culture of ‘silliness’ to dampen the chance that it was interpreted as confrontational. I don’t use cards myself as I have a hard enough time ensuring that I have a pen and enough index cards to hand near the board!

    • mattwynne says :

      …plus you can use the index card itself to note down the issue that needs to be taken offline.

  3. Ian Carroll says :

    Hi Benjamin, we use a similar method but with a football theme. 2 cards = a red. The team use their door entry passes as cards. Good banter.

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      Good to hear that you’ve used a similar approach. I’d be concerned that ‘red card’ may have a stronger negative impact than intended. I could also imagine that some teams would be strong enough for this not to be an issue.

  4. Nick Oostvogels says :

    Hi Benjamin,
    I used the same approach a couple of years ago. Even wrote a small blog post about it at the time http://noostvog.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/the-daily-hands-up/

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      Great post Nick! Thanks for linking to it. I like that you give some extra detail on the benefits to the approach. In your experience have their been any downsides or unintended negative consequences?

      • Nick Oostvogels says :

        Yes, in the beginning it felt like we were rushing because of the fear of getting the ‘hands-up’ :-)
        But after a few weeks that feeling disappeared.

      • Benjamin Mitchell says :

        Interesting. I like the point when teams start to feel comfortable voicing a “dissenting” opinion – for example, agreeing that work should not continue across the board because there were things that needed to be corrected at an earlier stage.

  5. Benjamin Mitchell says :

    Someone from my current client asked: “Interesting, but how do you get this to not feel passive-aggressive?”

    Justin from the team replied:

    “That is not really a problem as the team made a collective decision to adopt the practice. Everyone in the team understands the reasons for the practice. Raising your hand is merely an indication that you think there is greater value in continuing the conversation outside of the stand-up, rather than in it, and if people are in agreement – that happens. Raising your hand should not be interpreted any other way.”

  6. Jason Little says :

    I’ve used ‘sold’ and ‘tangent’ cards in meetings before. For the ramblers who don’t understand when the group agrees with them you hold up the ‘sold’ card. If the conversation is going off the rails, hold up the tangent card. Haven’t tried this with a standup though, it’s a good idea for new teams but I think mature teams should outgrow the need for this and other things like a talking token for their standups.

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      Interesting to hear about different variations of issues – someone not seeing that the team agreed (“sold”) as well as discussions going off topic (“tangent”).

      I agree that if a team continues to use the hands to raise issues this may be a sign that there’s a deeper problem that hasn’t been corrected.

  7. flowchainsensei says :

    A commonly-reported problem. But I would not use this solution, as I believe it risks infantilising the team. I would suggest that discussion the issue (long standups) to be more productive and respectful both.

    – Bob

    • Benjamin Mitchell says :

      What is it that leads you to think that this risks “infantalising” the team? This is something that I’m keen to avoid.

      In terms of discussing what leads to the long stand up, I agree with doing this, and I don’t see an issue introducing both. To me this is similar to Toyota’s ideas of fixing the problem to keep the line moving (using hands to signal that the discussion is unproductive) as well as looking for a deeper level fix at the end of a shift (discussing what leads to long stand ups in a retrospective). What’s your view on that?

      • flowchainsensei says :

        Early in the piece you write “For these situations we’ve introduced the “two hands” rule” but I was unclear on who “wee” might be (in terms of who took the decision). Later in the piece you wrote “I introduced this idea recently to a team who agreed to give it a try”, from which I inferred that you had identified the problem (I was unsure as to whether the team had the chance to confirm your diagnosis before voting on the proposed solution).

        From all this my small bear’s brain intuited that maybe the problem had not been explored and verified by the whole team, and that maybe the team had not had the opportunity to propose alternate ways forward. Hence I wrote “risks infantilising the team”. 

        The question of the root conditions for long standups is interesting, but separate, imo. I agree that time is always short and practical short-cuts are often necessary in the heat of a project. I am minded of the concept/risk of Social Debt, akin to Technical Debt, in this scenario (as intuited by me). What’s your view on that?

      • Benjamin Mitchell says :

        I’m a bit puzzled. Your initial response was that the “this solution … risks infantalising the team”. I inferred that the solution you were referring to was the two hands rule technique (the focus of this post). However, in your response to my inquiry about the reasons for your view, I don’t find anything about the two hands rule. Instead you write about assumptions and inference you formed about the way that the team came to adopt the technique (something that was not the focus of this post). Can you see how I was confused?

        I want to explore a dynamic that I see in your response, explain the impact your comments had on me, and see what you think of my view.

        If I understand your comments correctly, they contain a micro-theory of what you think effective behaviour looks like. To illustrate, you seem to believe that effective behaviour involves:
        * Identifying the problem with the others involved, rather than alone.
        * Giving the other’s involved a chance to explore and confirm or verify the problem
        * Giving the others an opportunity to propose alternative ways forward.
        Have I understood that you believe these to demonstrate effective behaviour?

        If that’s the case, then I think the way your comments were inconsistent with those values.

        Here’s how I saw viewed your comments:
        * Your initial response involved you sharing a negative evaluation / judgment “I would not use this solution, as it risks infantalising the team”.
        * You did not share what lead you to your view in the initial response.
        * You proposed an alternative way forward “Discussing the issues would be both more productive and respectful [than using this solution]”

        Using the theory of effectiveness you expressed in your comments to evaluate your own comments, here how I see it. You:
        * identified the problem on your own (“Benjamin probably/may’ve acted on his own, without allowing the team to confirm his diagnosis, and not allowing them to explore or verify the problem or propose alternative ways forward”)
        * gave me no chance to explore, confirm or verify the problem (you didn’t share your inferences /assumptions with me until I asked). In your second comment I can’t see any request (/question) to provide extra information that could help confirm or deny your inferences or provide clarity where you were unclear.
        * proposed a way forward (“have a discussion”) on your own without asking me my view, or asking to work together.

        What’s your view of my logic here? Do you see it the same or see it differently?

        You mention two phrases “we decided” and “I introduced the idea to the team” as the basis for your inferences assumptions about things I might have said and done. It’s not clear to me why these phrases are evidence for your view. I could imagine both phrases you highlight comments being interpreted in an alternative, more positive light.

        I’m interested in possible assumptions you have about the team. It seems you imagined that they may’ve been too weak to express concerns or to challenge me. If that’s true, then I think your view is consistent with “infantilising” them?

        The impact that your comments had on me was to feel prematurely accused and negatively evaluated. I found it upsetting, rather than helpful, which I think your own theory of effectiveness would predict.

      • flowchainsensei says :

        All good. I.E. I see the whole thing much in the terms you describe. You have my apologies, should they be necessary. Can’t promise not to make the same kind of inferences/comments another day, although can promise to revisit your words before doing so. :}

    • Ian Carroll says :

      I find its a useful way (but not the only way) in reducing confrontation, getting the team to collaborate more effectively, and feeling more relaxed with each other. It absolutely won’t work with all teams, there’s no standard approach or format to this. For me this is just another form of ritual – tribal ritual. It’s this kind of ritual behaviour that is the gel of teams and critical IMO.

  8. Pawel Wrzeszcz says :

    We use similar approach for the distributed stand-ups. Each participant has “WTF” card, shown when someone starts talking in an unclear way or with too much details.

    I would say that it is the awareness of the existence of the rule itself that helps keeping the meeting focused.

  9. Karen Rodgers says :

    One of the teams I’m working with has been trying the two hand rule this week. They’re a large team, and we were all starting to wilt before the end of the standup. So far it’s working a treat – with one guy raising two hands to himself twice already :)

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