About Shape Up

Shape Up is an agile product development approach used internally by Basecamp. It has three distinct phases:

  1. Shaping

The product strategy team writes a pitch that describes the problem that needs to be solved, giving as much detail as needed, and proposes a solution. The level of detail should be specific enough so that the team working on the project knows what to do. It should also leave enough room so the team can figure out the best way to build a solution that fits scope and budget constraints.

  1. Betting

Shaped projects are pitched to the management team, and they are chosen or dropped. Projects that were not chosen are usually not kept for future cycles.

  1. Building

The team responsible for building the project will have a cycle of 6 weeks to work on it, and the way they execute the work is up to the team. After six weeks, the project is either finished or killed. Extensions are discouraged.

See a more detailed explanation on how they run Shape Up at Basecamp here.

Podcast episode

Basecamp is probably one of the most successful startups out there. We all know they have a good culture, value their customers and employees. We know whatever they do works, but why can’t all companies follow their great culture and process?

I guess in the end, even though startup peeps love to call themselves visionaries, we are all afraid of changing the status quo. I mean, it took us a pandemic to finally switch the gears to a remote workplace. 4-day work weeks are slowly becoming ‘a thing’. I plan to write another post about the new Knowledge Economy and companies that don’t adapt to that will suffer, so let’s end here with this topic. But let me know if you are interested in that 😉

Shape Up introduces a new way to think about Product Strategy. We all know the pains but there’s not a lot of solutions out there. We continue treating Software as an industrial machine that outputs a result if you just give the right instructions.

That’s why I was so happy to have Raymond in our podcast. Listen to the full conversation here 🙂

I highlighted the best parts of the discussion.

  • Let’s say you want to adopt Shape Up in your team. What is the best way to do that? Raymond introduced the methodology very slowly without changing everything at once. He started with the Pitch, and slowly the team got on-boarded. The key is adapting while not changing too much.
  • Don’t just ask people to read the book. Change is difficult and it’s normal for some people to not like big changes at once. Not everyone wants to read the book, so it’s up to you to ‘sneak in’ in your team flow.
  • Shape Up helps you get comfortable with uncertainty. “Previously, I felt like I had to always define everything upfront but I wasn’t providing the right context for people to build things. Getting people more comfortable with uncertainty”.
  • If you’d like to start adopting Shape Up, start with shaping and writing pitches. Writing down a pitch helps developers getting more context and handling uncertainty in their work. It puts you in a more active thinking position about the problem, not just engaging in a meeting. The pitch also serves as a document to always get back to when trying to figure out a solution with lots of contexts. It requires commitment and everyone’s values, even if they don’t believe in the process. De-risking the process is something that you’re getting out of it naturally.
  • What are the improvements I will see if I give Shape Up a try? There is more time to focus on building, testing, and delivering things. In our sprints, we would have a slow sprint trying to get things right, uncovering unknowns. In retros, I always felt like we were doing something wrong. The reality is that it’s hard to quantify things when trying to scope down the work and understand the problem. Sounds like something familiar? 🤸🏻
  • Even if your company is small or is just starting, Shape Up is still a good asset to have: writing down and thinking about the process, reflecting on the trade-offs will always pay ahead big time.

I hope you got teased to listen to the episode! To finalize this post, I would like to share my favorite quotes!

Sometimes it’s not just about doing the right thing, but also having a great environment to allow you to experiment with this.

The pitch helps with figuring out how much investment do you want to make, what are the risks - which was hard to do during sprint discussions.

Cool down is the most successful thing. Everyone loves it. Time to learn something new, to try something that you didn’t have the time for during the cycle.

Stating the appetite in the pitch prevents unproductive conversations. There’s always a better solution. The question is, if we only care enough to spend 2 weeks on this now, how does this specific solution look? Anybody can suggest expensive and complicated solutions. It takes work and design insight to get a simple idea that fits in a small-time box. Stating the appetite and embracing it as a constraint turns everyone into a partner in that process.

Well, that’s it for today! Did you get convinced to try adopting Shape Up in your team? Do you feel comfortable trying that? You can follow us on Twitter and let us know.

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