Oliver Roick

Shape Up by Ryan Singer

Shape Up by Ryan Singer is about Basecamp’s approach to building products.

A lot of the Shape Up method is familiar. Work is planned and executed in cycles; it is prioritised, scoped, and scheduled before each cycle. Cross-functional teams do the work and ship working code at the end of each cycle. Shape Up has similarities with Agile principles – but with less overhead.

A cycle in Shape Up lasts six weeks. Six weeks seem like a long time compared to the two-week sprint we usually find with Scrum teams, but it is enough time to fully understand a problem and discover additional tasks. A six-week cycle leaves room to explore the best solution, discover tasks, to fail, divert, and maybe even start over. It promotes a calm work environment – something software engineers badly need.

Before a cycle, anyone in the company can propose a “shaped up” idea – a summary of a problem and a potential solution. It is specified with just enough detail, so the requirements are precise while leaving enough room to develop interesting solutions. User-interface designs are low-fidelity, often just a set of fat-marker sketches, and the work is not broken down into individual tickets. Autonomy and responsibility are placed into the hands of designers and engineers. Developers break down the work into individual, workable problem scopes, decide what to deliver, and – along with designer – make trade-offs between a perfect design and implementation complexity. Designers and engineers work out the intricacies of the user interface and interactions while working on a solution. Shape Up removes the lengthy scoping, design, and estimation process. The focus is on getting work done.

Any proposal that is not accepted or which scope exceeds a six-week time box does not land in a company-wide backlog. In Shape Up, there is no backlog. Rejected proposals can be reworked or improved and proposed again for a later cycle – but that is the responsibility of the person lobbying for the idea in the first place. Removing the backlog enables focus on what is important in the present, not what seemed to be important in the past. Without a backlog, there is no need for grooming and repeated discussions about priorities.

Following a cycle, there is a cool-down period during which no work is scheduled. People can use this time at will to fix bugs, refactor code, or explore new ideas. Engineers use the time to clean up a piece of code that has been bothering them. Designers can explore new ideas or refine already shipped work. There is a rule of thumb that software teams should dedicate about 20% of the time to bug fixes and refactoring – barely any team actually dedicates the time. The cool-down time after a cycle allows for that.

Shape Up focusses on getting work done. Shape Up promotes a calmer, focussed culture. A culture with fewer meetings and baggage. A culture that fosters creativity and collaboration, responsibility and ownership.