Let’s Shape Up: Why Basecamp’s Shape Up Method is the BEST way to produce Value

Ever heard of Shape Up?

Shape Up leads to more effective results by bridging the understanding gap between product managers and the software developers doing the work on the ground. It’s a process framework for developing software products.

If you’ve heard of sprints, or scrum, Shape Up is an alternative methodology to project management.

Basecamp, one of the most well-known web software companies, used to struggle hard-core with underestimating projects, tangled codebases, not meeting deadlines, and experiencing a significant gap in understanding between management expectations and realistic execution of these expectations.

Before Shape-up, a process framework for developing software products that rearranged the process, they would do very quick 2-week sprints that made the team feel like projects were “never-ending.”

This would happen to organizations using the scrum/sprint method all over the country.

Teams would experience burn-out, then frustrations would rise as product managers couldn’t get developers to deliver products on time, and developers felt they were getting set up for failure with unrealistic expectations.

Shape Up is a method that aims to solve this nagging problem by offering tools that bridge the understanding gap, help organizations better estimate their projects, and prevent projects from pushing deadlines to the right.

Sound familiar? Most people in the tech industry have experienced this frustration in some form or another.

“Before Shape Up, the thing that was most frustrating about delivery was that it could be difficult to remember the WHY behind what you were building,” says Joye Nettles, Practice Director of Application Delivery, of Tensure Consulting. “When you are constantly implementing stories in a backlog, I think it’s easy to feel “far away” from the problem.

I love how Shape Up forces you to always ask yourself “what IS the problem? and HOW can I creatively build and deliver a solution within these 6 weeks?”

Essentially, Shape Up helps teams deliver more effectively by offering a process framework that brings in the whole team: both managers and developers alike.

It gives teams a common language and a specific set of techniques to deal with the unknowns at each stage of the development process, which in turn allows for timely delivery of quality products.

Now, who wouldn’t want that? Honestly, Shape Up is the BEST way to produce VALUABLE, QUALITY, and TIMELY results, and these are the reasons why:

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#1: Shape Up doesn’t require teams to keep a backlog of tickets

If you’re a developer, you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming, tedious, and time-consuming requirement of keeping a backlog of tickets and ideas that come up during a project.

As much as backlogs are supposed to be an organized and streamlined list of important tasks, in reality, they become a never-ending list of any and all ideas, good or bad, with no clear prioritization.

Understandably, this makes it very difficult for developers to feel like they have actually accomplished anything at the end of a sprint.

And this causes morale to skydive into the ground.

Shape Up aims to solve this problem by not requiring teams to do this. Instead, product managers plan the project, in a process called “shaping”, pitch the plan to the rest of the team, then allow for the experts on the ground to do the work in the best way they see fit.

It allows for high-level planning that provides just enough direction to be useful, but also enough flexibility for experts to autonomously choose the best way to implement creative solutions to complex problems.

“I think backlogs are well-intentioned.” Joye explains. “You document the work that needs to be done and come back to it later. However, when it comes to building software, things change...often. And the information you put into your cards gets stale, or worse, obsolete.

With Shape Up, we really don’t have much of a backlog because we only have 6 weeks to knock out all the tasks relevant to our MVP. We may have cards that are “stretch goals” that we don’t plan on prioritizing until the core work is done, but for the most part, we only capture the work that we know needs to get done.”

Essentially, not having backlogs takes a load off team morale, and allows developers to be more creative and deliver quality results.

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#2: Shape Up requires managers to spend more time on planning projects before starting them.

As teams are actively building products during Shape Up’s 6-week cycle, project managers take that time to plan the next 6-week cycle by defining the project, it’s boundaries, it’s risks, how it works, and where it lies in existing flows.

The idea is to set realistic goals with abstract elements that give developers a rough direction of where to go, but allows them the autonomy to determine the ‘HOW’.

Soon after the plan is made, ‘pitching’ it to the team allows for weigh-in, which helps identify any missing elements that might have been overlooked.

This process, essentially, helps prevent major time-consuming problems from happening like projects going outside the scope, unforeseen issues slowing the process down, and too many rounds of review/editing in later states of execution.

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#3: Shape Up requires teams to trust the experts to do their job

Trust is the cornerstone of any effective team, and Shape Up incorporates this value in its entire framework.

At some point or another, many of us have been micromanaged on our work. The feeling of not being trusted to implement our expertise is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Shape Up aims to prevent this from happening by making the planning process less prescriptive and handing over the responsibility of execution to the experts doing the actual work.

This theme of empowerment cultivates a level of creativity and problem solving that allow the people who know what they are doing to do their job in the best way.

“My favorite part of Shape Up is the shared ownership it gives the team,” says Joye. “As a developer, I think it’s easy to just rely on the business/product people to define the work, especially with traditional agile models.

With Shape Up, it seems like the teams really get creative and come up with the best way to solve the problem. I think sharing the responsibility of defining and implementing everything, from the scope and requirements to the design, upskills everyone on the team. For example, when they have the right support, I’ve seen our junior developers mature tremendously after a few cycles of Shape Up.”

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Now, although Shape Up has shown to be an amazing method to increase team morale, better estimate project goals, and produce quality results, there are a couple of instances where Shape Up may not work as planned.

For example, in Research and Development (R&D) projects with risks and dependencies that are difficult to measure, Shape Up’s 6-week cycle may not be appropriate to account for these limitations. Also, with execution completely delegated to the teams on the ground, Shape Up may feel overwhelming to teams that have junior developers who aren’t used to that level of responsibility yet. In this case, Shape Up may not be the right approach for young teams, who are initially learning the ropes, especially in a remote work environment.

Otherwise, Joye thinks,

“Shape up is one of the best methods out there because it brings the entire team together—everyone has a say—it makes us all product-minded by urging us to talk to people and get creative, AND it makes it easier to feel proud of what we’ve done since we were all part of implementing solutions.”

Ember Blackfox

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