I was thinking back to some of the experiences I had over the last few weeks teaching classes to both Stanford students and executives, and watching some of my fellow teachers and colleagues in action. I realized that one of the hallmarks, one of the little signs I have learned to look for, is whether people are standing-up or sitting down. We all learn in school that being a "good student" means that we ought to stay in our seats and be good listeners. But I kept seeing situations where standing-up was a sign of active learning and leadership. To give you a a few examples, I noticed that when my course assistants stood up and walked around the classroom, they were more likely to be engaged by students and to create enthusiasm and energy. I noticed that student teams in my classes that stood-up when brainstorming, prototyping, or arguing over ideas seemed more energetic and engaged.
And I noticed when watching master innovation teacher and coach Perry Klebahn in action at the Stanford d. School that he hardly ever sits down for long, he is always on the prowl, walking over to members of his team to ask how things are going, to give a bit of advice, and to find out what needs to be fixed -- and is constantly walking over to to watch teams of students or executives who are working on creative tasks to see if they need a bit advice, coaching, or a gentle kick in the ass to get unstuck. (In fact, that is Perry listening to David Kelley while they were coaching teams -- David is the d schools main founder).
Of course, there are times when sitting down is best: During long meetings, when you want to unwind, when relaxed contemplation is in order. But these thoughts inspired a couple questions that many of us -- including me -- need to ask ourselves about the groups we work in and lead: Would it help if I stood up? Would it help if we all stood up?
This all reminded me of this passage from Good Boss, Bad Boss (from the chapter on how the best bosses "Serve as a Human Shield"):
In Praise of Stand-Up Meetings
I’ve been fascinated by stand-up meetings for years. It started when Jeff Pfeffer and I were writing Hard Facts, our book on evidence-based management. We often met in Jeff’s lovely house, typically starting-out in his kitchen. But we usually ended-up in Jeff’s spacious study -- where we both stood, or more often, Jeff sat on the lone chair, and I stood. Meetings in his study were productive but rarely lasted long. There was no place for me sit and the discomfort soon drove me out the door (or at least back to the kitchen). We wondered if there was research on stand-up meetings, and to our delight, we found an experiment comparing decisions made by 56 groups where people stood-up during meetings to 55 groups where people sat down. These were short meetings, in the 10 to 20 minute range, but the researchers found big differences. Groups that stood-up took 34% less time to make the assigned decision, and there were no significant differences in decision quality between stand-up and sit-down groups.
Stand-up meetings aren’t just praised in cute academic studies. Robert Townsend advised in Up the Organization, “Some meetings should be mercifully brief. A good way to handle the latter is to hold the meeting with everyone standing-up. The meetees won’t believe you at first. Then they get very uncomfortable and can hardly wait to get the meeting over with.”
I keep finding good bosses who use stand-up meetings to speed things along. One is David Darragh, CEO of Reily, a New Orleans-based company that specializes in southern foods and drinks. They produce and market dozens of products such as Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili, CDM Coffee and Chicory, No Pudge Fat Free Brownie Mix, and Luzianne Tea. David and I were having a rollicking conversation about how he works with his team. I started interrogating closely after he mentioned the 15 minute stand-up meeting held in his office four mornings a week. We since exchanged a series of emails about these meetings. As David explains:
“The importance of the stand-up meeting is that it can be accomplished efficiently and, therefore, with greater frequency. Like many areas of discipline, repetition begets improved results. The same is true with meetings. The rhythm that frequency generates allows relationships to develop, personal ticks to be understood, stressors to be identified, personal strengths and weaknesses to be put out in the light of day, etc. The role of stand-up meetings is not to work on strategic issues or even to resolve an immediate issue. The role is to bubble up the issues of the day and to identify the ones that need to be worked outside the meeting and agree on a steward to be responsible for it. With frequent, crisp stand up meetings, there can never be the excuse that the opportunity to communicate was not there. We insist that bad news travels just as fast as good news”
The team also has a 90 minute sit-down meeting each week, where they dig into more strategic issues. But the quick daily meetings keep the team connected, allow them to spot small problems before they become big ones, and facilitate quick and effective action.
Stand-up meetings aren’t right for every meeting or boss. As we saw in the last chapter in the broken Timbuk2 all-hands meeting, part of the problem with that 45 or so minute gathering was there was no place for most people to sit, which fueled the group’s grumpiness and impatience. The key lesson is that the best bosses constantly look for little ways to use everyone’s time and energy more efficiently and respectfully. They keep unearthing traditions, procedures, or other things that needlessly slow people down. In many cases, these speed bumps have been around so long that people don’t even realize they exist or that they do more harm than good. Try to look at what you and your people do through fresh eyes. Bring in someone who “doesn’t know any better,” and ask them: What can I do to help my people travel through the day with fewer hassles?
What do you think? How does standing-up help in what you do? When is it a bad idea?
P.S. Check out this Wall Street Journal article on stand-up meetings as part of the "Agile" software development process, particularly the "daily scrum."
P.P.S. Don't miss Jason Yip's article on how to run a stand-up meeting and how to tell when it isn't going well.