Sam SlotskyEngineering @ Manifold

A Taco For My Thoughts

Daily standups are standard procedure for development teams everywhere. One common format for this meetings is for participants to take turns sharing three things:

  1. What have I been doing since the last standup?

  2. What will I be doing next?

  3. Do I have any blockers?

The last item is probably the most valuable to the group as a whole. This gives team members the chance to bring an issue to everyone’s attention. The group can quickly decide on an action to take to unblock the member who raised the issue. It could be a plan for pair programming, or a meeting with product and design. The important thing is that the meeting moves along and nobody stays blocked. So what about the first two items? What value do they add to the meeting?

I tend to think that the individual gets more benefit from this than the group. It’s certainly not bad to have this visibility, but in most cases, other team members neither need nor want to be intimately aware of everyone else’s daily development progress. For me, this is a very useful bit of forced reflection that helps me stay organized, focus on my goals, and act with intention.

How We’re Different At Manifold

Where I work, the process I described above is basically a warm-up. We write these summaries in a thread on Slack before the meeting even starts (well, most of us do, usually). The meeting itself has a different format:

  1. How are you doing/feeling?

  2. Do you have any special topics?

  3. Would you like to give any tacos?

Let’s discuss these out of order.

Special Topics

This is an opportunity to shed light on an issue. This is similar in nature to announcing your blockers in the standard stand-up format, but it’s not limited to things that are blocking you. There could be design or architecture issues you want to raise, processes that you want to improve, or any number of other things. As with blockers, the goal is to declare an action item to address the issue and allow the meeting to keep moving. To accomplish this, we apply our strategy for seeking advice and making decisions that helps ensure that someone owns the issue and sees it through to their satisfaction. This part of the meeting is a regular launching ground for new issues to be created and resolved under this framework.

The rest of the meeting is dedicated to different forms of reflection, which is something I think we do remarkably well at Manifold.

How Ya Doin’?

As I mentioned previously, stating what you’re working on is a good opportunity for some self reflection, but it inherently puts the focus on workers as resources, rather than humans. In our daily standups, we start by saying how we’re doing. The answer is often not work related. Lots of things affect how we feel, and as a distributed team we have fewer opportunities to connect and get to know each other on a human level, so we provide a consistent venue that explicitly encourages us to do this. But to me, there’s more to it than that.

The real value from my perspective comes from more self reflection. “How are you?” is a question that is strangely difficult for me to answer because I tend not to take enough time to really assess how I feel about things. This exercise motivates me to be prepared to answer the question with something non-generic, and as a result it increases my self awareness.

This form of reflection is great for helping us to know ourselves and each other much better, but it tends to be self-centered. It’s important to be a little selfish sometimes, but equally important to reflect specifically on how our coworkers are improving our lives through their efforts. We do this with virtual tacos.

Never Enough Tacos

Let’s face it, tacos are delicious. What better way to show that you value someone than by offering some hot, melty goodness? Sadly, we can’t eat our virtual tacos, but it’s really the thought that counts.

Everyone has a daily budget of 5 tacos through the heytaco Slack integration. At Manifold we give people tacos when we want to show appreciation for something they’ve done. People like to know that they are valued, and receiving appreciation has been known to help motivation. Compared to other solutions designed to keep employees motivated through various forms of recognition, heytaco offers a simple and inexpensive way to show your teammates how much they rock.

Tacos can be given at any time, but stand-up provides a formal venue to call some people out. This forces me to spend more time reflecting on how others affect me or the whole company in a positive way. The increased reflection time offered by our stand-up format is thus well balanced to prevent a more self-centered thought process.

Mirror, Mirror

Our stand-up is different from most. Rather than serving as but a window into our daily progress, it’s an opportunity to really look at ourselves, as individuals and also as a team. We are humans first and foremost, working towards a common goal in an environment where our actions can impact one another significantly. How are we getting along as humans? How well do our actions align with our values and goals, and how can we improve that alignment? And how can we make sure that our friends know how much they’re valued? Our stand-up at Manifold provides a quick and effective way to address these questions with minimal ceremony by providing more opportunities for reflection and integrating our decision making process.

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect it also increases taco revenues in Halifax and around the globe where our remote employees are stationed.

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