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Whiteboards & X-Men: A Story & Tip on Organizing & Integrating A Team

Nuthin’. Whatsa motto wit’ you?

Here at Mack Web, we have a motto and it is this:

Everyone loves a bit with a llama.

Actually, upon consideration, we have quite a few mottos, including but not limited to: Gummy bears make everything better, Trust no one, Never say never ever, Knowing is half the battle, and Always carry a towel.

never say

But none of those mottoes are at issue here. The motto relevant to today’s discussion is this:

Test. Everything.

We apply this particular piece of wisdom all over the place. Anytime an expert (or “expert”) suggests something, lays down the law, offers advice? Test it. Theories are great, but you don’t really know how true they are until you’ve had a chance to try them out.

Sometimes they don’t work for you or they don’t work the way you expected. Because, cliches aside, you are a special, special snowflake and what is ideal for someone else, in someone else’s circumstances may not be so ideal for you.

So, when someone recommends social media tactics, like the best time to tweet or the headlines that convert, test ‘em out.

If you read an article with recommendations on how best to accommodate an update in Google’s algorithms, test it out.

Should you come across suggestions for productivity hacks or operational efficiency, test them before you throw in your whole-hearted support.

And above all else, if someone asks you to contribute for office birthday cupcakes, test those suckers out. Be the brave soul who makes sure those cupcakes aren’t poisoned.

That’s the bonus tip, here’s the real story

Cupcakes aside and going back a step, let me tell you a little story of an operational efficiency idea that we have tested, do test, and will continue to test the heck out of.

(We’re starting to really get into the groove with it, to the point that – though it’s not perfect yet – we feel comfortable recommending it to you to test out for yourselves).

The year is 2011 and the Mack Web business is beginning to change, the team is starting to grow and to specialize. Instead of working on different aspects of the same project, we’re starting to work on different projects altogether.

Which means, inevitably, that we’re beginning to have occurrences of ‘the right hand knows not what the left is doing.’

Which is bad news for those times when collaboration is necessary to complete something. No catastrophes yet, but the danger looms.

Mack, fearless leader Mack, wise and farseeing Mack, canny and clever behind her bright, beaming smile, saw the problem that it could soon become. (Or maybe she was feeling a little left out, a little lonely. Maybe all of the above). And so she sought a solution.

In the course of her research (these were the days we were first learning about being agile), she read about programming teams who hold a brief meeting everyday to communicate what each member is working on.

Called standups – because making everyone stand up for the meeting keeps it brief (in theory anyway) – these meetings were intended to break down departmental silos and keep projects moving.

So we decided to test it.

Inception of a Standup

It quickly became clear that our first attempt was…not a success. The daily meetings pulled a chunk out of every morning, not only the actual standing up part, but the scramble for each person to assemble a list of their tasks for that day.

And then those meetings became exactly that: each member of the team reeling off a list of tasks, half of which had neither relevance nor, really, interest for the rest of the team. Glazed eyes, clutched coffee cups, 15 minutes gone from the crucial start of the day.

boring meeting

As the team continued to grow, that 15 minutes became 20, 25. And as the only time guaranteed to gather the whole group, they inevitably got hijacked for announcements, for chitchat, for ‘oh, real quick, while I’ve got you all…’. 30 minutes, 35.

There were other weaknesses as well: we only talked about tasks day by day, which didn’t give us any scope on the whole week or the weeks to come. We weren’t looking at the whole breadth and scale of the projects and we lost sight of the intent behind each individual task: to help our clients build their brand, build their community, build their dreams. (Dramatic, us? No, of course not. Silly rabbit).

We know that the daily standup has proven crazy valuable to all kinds of programming teams and we don’t knock them for the technique. But it clearly wasn’t working for us.

Evolution of a Standup

The first step was putting the kibosh on the daily madness. Weekly, we decided, was better. It meant that, when pulling together their lists, people were looking at the (slightly) bigger picture and the team got an idea of what was on everyone’s plates, in case someone needed to tag someone else for help or input on a project.

This broadened our perspective a little, but still we were missing out. It became clear that weekly was good, but task-oriented was bad. So instead of talking about what everyone was working on, we started to look at what we were trying to get done: client deliverables and the channels through which we wanted to promote them.

That shift in focus was a big step in the right direction, but it meant, of course, that we couldn’t just come to the meeting with a post-it-note we scrabbled together from a review of our individual emails: we needed a visual record of all ongoing projects so nothing got overlooked or forgotten.

Thank goodness Jon – Mack’s handy, helpful, forbearing husband – had built us this pretty cool whiteboard that everyone wanted and no one really knew what to do with, huh?

the whiteboard

Suddenly we had a place to record not only project due dates and interim tasks, we had a big central location for recording things like when people were out of the office.

We also had a very large, very colorful, very concrete (or…plastic? what are whiteboards made out of anyway?) reminder that no, it was not okay for this meeting to devolve into idle chatter about kitties (no matter how adorable), weekend plans (no matter how awesome), or even llamas (no matter how transcendently spectacular).

But even then, there were things that weren’t quite right. One week didn’t give us enough scope, so we started looking at two weeks. That helped us prioritize and prepare not just for the significant needs of today but the projected needs of tomorrow.

We even added a small section for Week 3, where any major deliverables lurk, reminding us of their impending doomishness.

Since we have remote team members, we take a picture of the board and send it off to them via HipChat. (We love Hipchat). When Standup time comes, we dial them in on Google+. (We love Google+, too). And off we go.

Somewhere in this process of evolution, we picked up Rebecca, our fearless Account Coordinator, she who knows the mysteries of the Master Calendar and does not fear.

Adding Team Support Ann, who has eminently readable handwriting and a knack with erasable markers was another boon.

Standup - Evolved

Things became much easier after that.

Benefits of an Evolved Standup

And that’s where we stand (ha!) now. Once a week, we gather at the whiteboard and review the burdens of the day, week, and beyond. We align the team and keep everyone accountable.

By focusing on the clients, rather than the members of the team, we’re emphasizing the integrated nature of everything we do: each deliverable carries the initials of the team members working on it. Not only does this make sure that all necessary departments are looped in, it serves as a subtle reminder to each of us that we are a team.

No man is an island.

With the Whiteboard of All Knowledge drawing from the Previously-Fearsome-And-Yet-Now-Docile-In-The-Hands-Of-Its-Master Master Calendar, we know that no balls are being dropped or forgotten.

Looking ahead alleviates the stress and fear of the unknown. Mondays, though they will never ever be anyone’s favorite day, are no longer quite so dreadful as we know there will be no uncomfortable surprises of last minute deadlines overlooked in the Friday rush out the door.

(Happy surprises like, say, cupcakes, are always welcome. Even on Mondays).

Time management is easier when we know what’s ahead and, furthermore, when we know we know what’s ahead.

Plus…we get to cross stuff off a big, ol’ list on a wall-sized whiteboard. What’s not to love about that, amiright?

So, we’re pleased with our Standup, however different it may be from its original shape.  And yes, we like to think of it as evolved rather than mutated.

Like the X-Men.


Some pro-tips on dealing with the X-Men. Er, with Standup. That’s what we meant

Really, we highly recommend the method we’ve got. We urge you to test it out for yourself.

Should you find that something similar works for you, here’s a few minutiae we’ve stumbled across that have made the whole thing even better:

  • We hold our Standup on Tuesday. Monday mornings are inevitably a catch-up-check-your-email-chat-about-your-weekend time. Having it on Tuesday helps the meeting stay focused. Plus, we have a No Monday Meetings policy in our office. So that works out.
  • We also don’t hold it too early. Grumpy meetings are not good meetings.
  • We sorta, accidentally ended up with a mandatory, weekly client check-in right after our scheduled Standup time. That means that we have no choice but to keep the meeting efficient and brief. It was actually a perfect storm of productivity.
  • We include both internal and external dates for everything. We are accountable to each other as well as the clients. This also leaves us plenty of time for reviewing and conferring and editing.
  • We mark external dates with a big arrow so everyone knows that’s the day it goes to the client. No fudging.
  • We color code each client on the board.
  • We try to align tasks (the pieces and the internal and external dates) along the same visual line on the board, so all you have to do is skim across to track the timeline for progress.
  • In the actual Standup, we discuss the weeks by client, rather than day. It keeps the conversation focused and streamlined.
  • Uh, we don’t, really, uh, stand anymore. Dunno why.

And that’s us: wise and evolved, but with better hair than Professor X

We’re not ones to rest on our laurels. No doubt our Standup will continue to change as we mold it to fit our needs.

We’re curious about you. How do you keep your team on track and integrated? What tools do you use? What techniques? Any suggestions?

Come on, be an X-Man. I think we’re still looking for a Nightcrawler.


Author Courtney Brown

More posts by Courtney Brown

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • ronell smith says:

    A. Thanks for sharing the best meeting idea ever shared on earth.

    B. Mack’s husband just pissed me off: A whiteboard?! Seriously, dude? Quit making us look bad. Ugh… 🙂

    C: Thanks for being so awesome.


    • Courtney Brown says:

      A: You’re welcome.
      B: We’re pretty happy that he and Mack are a package deal.
      C: Well, we do what we can.
      D: Thank you for being so awesome.

  • Ryan Glass says:

    Courtney (and team), thanks for sharing both your process and the story of it’s evolution.

    As our in-house team has grown from 3 to 15 people in the last 2 years, we have also undergone a series of meeting styles to try to keep everything on pace and organized.

    Our latest incarnation is to allot ~10 minutes for each team member to share something they have learned from the projects they’ve been working on. Sometimes it’s a new tool they found, other times it may be aggregated data about customer behavior they observed. The only criteria is that whatever you present should answer the question “what did you learn” not “why the heck did you do all week”. (The best slide decks always end in a meme or gif.)

    I’ve enjoyed this format because it levels the playing field between newer and more experienced team members, so that it’s not a celebration of the big projects that some folks are working on while the newest interns may still be learning systems and doing less glamorous work. Given the “always more to learn” nature of our industry, focusing our team meetings around sharing what we’ve learned helps keep anyone from going stagnant and promotes the idea that we are all moving forward together.


    • Courtney Brown says:

      Ryan, that sounds like a great way to check in with your team. Figuring out how to still be a team even as the team grows is a huge a challenge. Way to rise to the occasion.

      (And really, doesn’t the best everything end with a meme or a gif?)

      Thanks for the idea.

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