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Cartoon. A person stands in front of a wall covered in countless sticky notes. A thought bubble above the person says: This is ridiculous. We'll never get all this done.

Now that we’ve written a pitch, where does it go? It doesn’t go onto a backlog.

No backlogs

Backlogs are a big weight we don’t need to carry. Dozens and eventually hundreds of tasks pile up that we all know we’ll never have time for. The growing pile gives us a feeling like we’re always behind even though we’re not. Just because somebody thought some idea was important a quarter ago doesn’t mean we need to keep looking at it again and again.

Backlogs are big time wasters too. The time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organizing old ideas prevents everyone from moving forward on the timely projects that really matter right now.

A few potential bets

So what do we do instead? Before each six-week cycle, we hold a betting table where stakeholders decide what to do in the next cycle. At the betting table, they look at pitches from the last six weeks — or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again.

Nothing else is on the table. There’s no giant list of ideas to review. There’s no time spent grooming a backlog of old ideas. There are just a few well-shaped, risk-reduced options to review. The pitches are potential bets.

With just a few options and a six-week long cycle, these meetings are infrequent, short, and intensely productive.

If we decide to bet on a pitch, it goes into the next cycle to build. If we don’t, we let it go. There’s nothing we need to track or hold on to.

What if the pitch was great, but the time just wasn’t right? Anyone who wants to advocate for it again simply tracks it independently—their own way—and then lobbies for it six weeks later.

Decentralized lists

We don’t have to choose between a burdensome backlog and not remembering anything from the past. Everyone can still track pitches, bugs, requests, or things they want to do independently without a central backlog.

Support can keep a list of requests or issues that come up more often than others. Product tracks ideas they hope to be able to shape in a future cycle. Programmers maintain a list of bugs they’d like to fix when they have some time. There’s no one backlog or central list and none of these lists are direct inputs to the betting process.

Regular but infrequent one-on-ones between departments help to cross-pollinate ideas for what to do next. For example, Support can tell Product about top issues they are seeing, which Product can then track independently as potential projects to shape. Maybe Product picks off just one of those top issues to work on now. Then, in a future one-on-one, Support can lobby again for something that hasn’t yet gotten attention.

This approach spreads out the responsibility for prioritizing and tracking what to do and makes it manageable. People from different departments can advocate for whatever they think is important and use whatever method works for them to track those things—or not.

This way the conversation is always fresh. Anything brought back is brought back with a context, by a person, with a purpose. Everything is relevant, timely, and of the moment.

Important ideas come back

It’s easy to overvalue ideas. The truth is, ideas are cheap. They come up all the time and accumulate into big piles.

Really important ideas will come back to you. When’s the last time you forgot a really great, inspiring idea? And if it’s not that interesting—maybe a bug that customers are running into from time to time—it’ll come back to your attention when a customer complains again or a new customer hits it. If you hear it once and never again, maybe it wasn’t really a problem. And if you keep hearing about it, you’ll be motivated to shape a solution and pitch betting time on it in the next cycle.

We built Basecamp to execute the techniques in this book. It puts all our project communication, task management, and documentation in one place where designers and programmers work seamlessly together. See How to Implement the Shape Up Method in Basecamp.