Team Building: A Lesson From Rugby

team building huddleSomeone had asked earlier what team building exercises VSee does.  My initial reaction was “we don’t,” because we don’t really do ropes courses or packaged team building retreats, but I realized that one of the most important team building exercises we do is the daily stand-up meeting.  Jason Yip of Thoughtworks wrote an excellent piece on“Patterns Of Daily Stand-Up Meetings” noted that just regularly communicating, working together, and helping each other does a much better job of team-building than any contrived exercises could. data-recalc-dims=

The Stand-Up As A Sports Team Huddle

The idea of a Daily Stand-up or Huddle or Scrum came from the rugby scrum or a pre-game sports huddle and serves a similar purpose: to have a simple ritual that helps sports team focus and energize so they can be effective and cohesive as a group.  For Yip, the number one purpose served by the Daily Stand-up meeting is that it causes each member to make a public declaration of their commitment to the team.  When people come together each day for the Stand-up and share their accomplishments, plans, and obstacles, they are not simply finding out what everyone else is doing, but they are witnesses to each person’s plans and an active participant in helping everyone stay accountable for their work and keeping everyone on the same track as the team.

Factors Influencing Team Building

If we follow through with the sports team analogy, we find that a big question in sports psychology is building team and task cohesion.  Researchers such as Carron, Haufenblas, and Eys find that cohesion is achieved through several different kinds of factors, for example :

Environmental factors are things such as being physically near each other, sharing hobbies and activities, uniforms, team rituals, organizational culture, or mottoes.  VSee’s video capabilities make a huge impact in this area.  Being able to visually see people who are not physically present creates a sense of group that simply isn’t possible with only audio.  One remote worker I was chatting with confessed that even after 9 months of daily stand-ups with a group of about 15 members, he still couldn’t place names to all the voices of people on his team.

Personal factors include commitment, satisfaction, and responsibility for actions.  One of the most common complaints of remote workers is work isolation and loneliness.  While Facebook, SMS, even phone is great, it really takes seeing faces to make it feel like you’re being treated like a human and not just a disembodied machine.

Leadership factors. Every team needs a good leader, but Yip says that a successful Stand-up must be self-managing.  It should never be about reporting back to a boss in front of everyone else, but about team members keeping each  other accountable and supporting each other.  This means that meetings will still happen even without the manager.

Team factors might include the clarity with which each member understands and accepts his role with the team, the sense of being able to do more as a group, the laying aside of differences for the sake of the group.  The Stand-up is especially helpful in orienting new members so they quickly get to know everyone’s roles and get a sense of where they fit in.

Size is also an issue.  Carron and other researchers have noted that smaller teams are more focused and together. When Berkshire Hathaway was the 13th largest Fortune 500, they only had a staff of 12 people.  Warren Buffet believed in extremely small teams – “When the team is large, the team spends a lot of time managing each other. When the team is small, the focus is results.”

The Evolution Of a VSee Stand-up

Of course, a good stand-up doesn’t just happen, and perfecting our VSee stand-ups has been a process in itself.  These are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

Lesson 1:  Take it Offline

Initially, people could say whatever they wanted at the Stand-up.  But one of the biggest complaints of meetings in general is people getting off topic or a meeting not having a clear goal.  Without meaning to the Stand-up would get dragged around on tangents irrelevant to most of the team.  Now everyone has a strictly enforced 1 minute to share what they did, what they plan to do, and what is blocking them or what they need from others.  Extended discussions need to be done with the relevant people outside of the Stand-up time.  But before the 1 minute rule, we had the “silent” stand-up.

Lesson 2:  Vocalize Your Commitment

In an effort to focus and shorten the Stand-ups we went in an opposite direction.  Before the meeting everyone would send in their work summaries and plans, which would be aggregated into a spreadsheet.  The stand-up would then end up being everyone silently staring at the spreadsheet for the first 5-10 minutes, and then bringing up any questions or issues they had.  Remember, the single most important purpose of the Stand-up is to publicly show commitment to the group which is more effective when people physically speak out about their roles and plans.  It also gives the meeting more energy.

Lesson 3: Timing Matters

When meetings were longer, we used to do them three times a week.  However, we have found that an everyday routine has been healthy and convenient.  By having shorter Stand-ups at a regular set time each day, there is never a question of when (or where) the meeting will be,  and we don’t waste time waiting around for late comers to show.  It’s also no big deal if we have to cancel a meeting because of network or scheduling issues or if someone has to miss for whatever reason.  We know we’ll have another one tomorrow…same time, same place.

To sum up, here are some of the key characteristics of remote team Stand-ups that have been important to us:

  • members share commitment, direction and focus
  • members communicates daily status, progress, obstacle and plans to the team and any observers
  • members can visually see each other
  • members feel supported by each other
  • short and sweet (15 minutes or less)
  • self-managing (about the team, not the boss)
  • meets regularly at the same time and place

Feel free to let us know what makes your remote meetings work or not work?

Annotated References

Aric Hall. 2007. Sport psychology: Building group cohesion, performance, and trust in athletic teams. Nice summary of sport psychology literature.

Albert V. Carron, Heather P. Hausenblas & Mark A. Eys. 2005. Group Dynamics In Sport (3rd ed.)

Jason Yip. Patterns of daily stand-up meetings.  Has a great list of links to articles about stand-up meetings at the end of the pied.

Roger Lowenstein. 1996. Buffet: The Making of An American Capitalist.  Really goes into the meaning of value, price, and credit – the principles behind his success. I also learned the importance of knowing what you’re not good at.


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photo courtesy of lululemon athletica



Comments ( 1 )
  • milton
    Chris Patton says:

    We recently launched a simple email tool designed to help with the daily standup – it’s called Daily Update. So the point is to update the whole group on what got done yesterday via email, so the actual meeting can focus on what they plan to do, what is blocking them, etc. The meeting is about the future, not the past. We found people were spending too much time rehashing yesterday when we really wanted to get to what to do today! A bonus for us has been the realization that the enforced discipline of taking 30 seconds at the end of the day to update people helps set up a better, more focused discussion the next day. Love to hear what you think!

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