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I am looking for a tactful way to help a team member improve their communication skills to be more concise and direct.

I'm trying to introduce a daily standup into a startup team of 3, which will soon be growing.

The challenge is that one of our team members has a tremendous amount of difficulty in being concise, and getting to the point. As soon as he begins his update, he goes off on wild tangents outlining whatever he's been thinking about recently, whether or not his thoughts or well formed yet.

This leads to meetings that take up to 45 minutes, which of course makes daily meetings unsustainable. We often don't do them, which I believe is due to the perception that they'll always take way too long.

He is aware of the issue, and acknowledges it when asked to "get to the point", but doesn't seem to be making adjustments.

Although the hierarchy is very flat, he is by title and ownership the most senior team member. Both of the other team mates take turns reminding him, so I'm afraid that eventually he will begin to feel undermined, defensive or embattled.

To me, this is a rather serious issue, as it also spills into meetings we have with external parties. Frankly, it's also just annoying, and unbecoming of a leader.

I would like input on how to address this in a tactful manner so that our scrum meetings are more efficient and productive, and hopefully work with him to find a polite cue which we can give to remind him to be direct and concise.

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    Should go to The Workplace – Sklivvz Jul 24 '14 at 17:06
  • Hey nildram, did you intend to ask this from the perspective of project management/agile processes? If so, we'll leave this post here. Otherwise, you might get a broader range of answers from people in different fields if we do move this to The Workplace SE. Please let me know if you'd like to move this and I can do so. Thank you. – jmort253 Jul 25 '14 at 4:59
  • If you do want to keep this here on PMSE, I'd encourage editing this a bit more just to clarify from a PM perspective, as it does seem like a better fit for Workplace SE in its current format. Good luck! :) – jmort253 Jul 25 '14 at 5:02
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    Hey @jmort253, thanks for your helpful moderation. I think it's two fold, and the answers here are really excellent from the perspective of the PM/Scrum Master, which is half the issue. Though I think you're right, that the larger issue though would be a better fit for WorkplaceSE. I'm just not sure what will happen to the great answers here when you do. – mardlin Jul 26 '14 at 3:30
  • Just don't do standup meetings, which are evil in the first place, see Daily Stand-Up Meetings Are a Good Tool for a Bad Manager – yegor256 Jul 14 '15 at 23:03
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TL; DR

  • Don't be tactful, be clear. The Scrum Master is responsible for refereeing the daily stand-up, and a referee's calls need to be unambiguous.

  • If being clear is still insufficient, the team needs to adapt its process. That means the organization, the team, and the Scrum Master all need to take ownership of the problem, rather than allowing a single individual to derail your process.

  • Failing that, the problem team member needs to be removed. Managing team composition is part of the inspect-and-adapt process, too.

Stop Doing the Same Thing and Expecting Different Results

You say that this person already knows there's an issue, so "being tactful" about addressing the issue serves no useful purpose. The real issue is that you keep expecting the team member to change, rather than adapting your process.

You have an infinite number of choices for adapting your process, and are only limited by your team's creativity and commitment to the Scrum framework. Some examples include:

  1. Stop asking open-ended questions of this person.

    Ask him which user stories he worked on yesterday, rather than task-level details about what he did with each story. The detailed information should be available to other team members through transparent means such as source control or the team kanban if anyone needs that level of detail.

    Then ask whether he has any dependencies on other stories today, and if there's any help he needs to complete work he's attempting to complete today. Keep the scope of the questions narrow and concrete.

  2. Change the format of your stand-up.

    The stand-up isn't for your benefit. It's a coordination and dependency-planning meeting for the whole team. Consider having team members bring in an index card listing tasks, dependencies, and blockers for the current day, and don't open up the floor for anything that isn't on a single side of one index card.

  3. Vote the team member off the island.

    Sometimes a given person isn't a good fit for a team. The reason the person is a poor fit doesn't matter. If someone is toxic to the team, or if adapting the team's process would put an unreasonable burden on the rest of the team, then the only responsible thing is for the whole team to recommend that line management remove or replace the problem team member.

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You do need to make him aware of the impact of his pontification, and it sounds like he has some awareness now. However, it will not cure the issue. It is a well constructed behavior pattern he has developed over his life time and is likely consistent with his personality make-up and a ton of social engineering, i.e., he has been rewarded in his past for this behavior. He will die pontificating.

Your solution is meeting facilitation. You have a weak facilitator (if that's you, no offense). Facilitation requires staying on the meeting plan and controlling those who are talking. If the topic strays, the facilitator interrupts; if the time it is taking to cover a topic strays from plan, the facilitator interrupts. It can appear rude, but that's a narrow interpretation. It is part of a properly managed meeting.

  • Thank you and no offense taken. I've also added a relevant modification to the question just now: >Although the hierarchy is very flat, he is by title the most senior team member. Both of the other team mates take turns reminding him, so I'm afraid that eventually he will begin to feel undermined, defensive or embattled. >To me, this is a rather serious issue, as it also spills into meetings we have with external parties. Frankly, it's also just annoying, and unbecoming of a leader. – mardlin Jul 24 '14 at 15:54
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    This. As a Scrum Master, the answer to this is to remind the team the purpose of the stand up, and ask if this is relevant. If not something simple like 'lets pick that up after this meeting' is sufficient. If you don't have a Scrum Master, anyone can remind the aim of the meeting and interrupt. – SpoonerNZ Jul 25 '14 at 10:20
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What about having the Scrum Master commence the meeting by reminding the team with the goals and flow of the daily stand up.

Something that goes along the lines of the following:

Goals

  • Helps setting the context/scope for the coming day's work
  • Helps getting everyone up to date and to identify potential roadblocks ahead

Flow

Each team member answer the following questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in your way?

Also, it would help if the team prepared a written version of the meeting content before starting. They take like 5 mins before the meeting,and each one draft the answers to the 3 questions quickly on a piece of paper or something. I believe this will help them sort out their thoughts and keep it short and to the point.

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You don't specifically mention scrum in your question but I note you have used the scrum tag, so I've written my response accordingly. Two main things come to mind:

  1. In scrum, there are only three roles: Scrum Master, Product Owner, Development Team. On the development team, everyone is considered a developer irrespective of their specialisation. They are a group of peers and there is no concept of 'senior' or 'leader'.

In your case, the team can, and should, remind the individual that they should be sharing only three items: What they did yesterday, what they're doing today and any impediments. Anything that requires longer can be held after the daily scrum and involve only those people that need to attend.

  1. The daily scrum is a time-boxed meeting. Part of the scrum master's role is to ensure that the timebox is adhered to.

In your case, stop the meeting at 15 minutes and resume work. This may be difficult for a few days but it forms good behaviour.

Now to your actual question. How do you tactfully get the individual to follow these rules? Here's one approach you could try: Ask the individual to ensure that the daily scrum is operated within the rules.

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I faced with a similar situation sometime back with my team.In my case it was not just one team member but many of us talking about accomplishments/impediments in great detail ( and occasional jokes :) ).And most of the time the meetings went up to 30 minutes.

I did the following

  1. Explained to the team that "We" are taking too long than we should and pointed out the number of hours we are collectively wasting as a result.(It's important to point out that all of us are wasting time & to understand the problem/business impact)

    • Expected time to take for a meeting = 15 Minutes
    • Extra time we were taking = (30 - 15) Minutes
    • Time waste for a Month (10 Member team)= 50 Person hours
  2. Discussed with the team how long they feel we should take (Make your suggestions as well) and ask for a volunteer to keep track of an alarm

  3. Each Member will start giving their update with emphasis on what they did the day before, what they are going to do today & any Blockers?
  4. Stop! exactly when the agreed upon time(15 minutes in my case) finish. Do this very strictly.Chances are for the first 2-3 days not all members can give the update but believe me they will improve & you might be able to finish a little sooner as the team get used to this (in my experience)

Few things you might want to address

  • Since some team members will be left out during first few days you need to meet them offline and just have a chat if they have any impediments(Nothing more!)
  • Start the update with different people on different days so that the same people don't get the chance every time (until team achieve the perfect time)

Good luck! :)

Addition: I need to give credits to my SCM trainer Pete Deemer for above

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You ask for a tactful way, here's one: Get a large timer/clock, tell everyone that 'for a trial period to help speed up the meetings' each person will get X mins each. Then HAND each person the clock so they 'own' their own time as it were. They can talk until the timer is up then they MUST stop and pass it on (+ next person resets clock before they speak). To be super tactful, talk with the long talking person separately beforehand and say you've had this idea about a clock to help speedup the meetings, but you need his buy-in first.

This isn't the best way (I prefer the other answers) but it is a tactful way.

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