Basic truths vs. specific practices
To apply Shape Up to your company, it helps to separate out the basic truths from the specific practices.
Work has to come from somewhere, and it takes work to figure out what the right work is. This is shaping. Shaping the work sets clearer boundaries and expectations for whoever does the work—whether that’s a separate team or just your future self. If we don’t make trade-offs up front by shaping, the universe will force us to make trade-offs later in a mad rush when we’re confronted by deadlines, technical limitations, or resource constraints.
The same is true with betting. Six weeks might not be the exact time frame for your team. But the consequences of making unclear or open-ended commitments are the same for everyone. Regardless of the specific time frame we bet on, we should be deliberate about what we bet on and cap our downside with a circuit breaker.
In the building phase, there will be unknowns to deal with whether you track them on a hill chart or not. We need to distinguish the knowns from the unknowns so we can sequence the work in the right order and reserve capacity for the unknowns.
These truths apply regardless of the size of your organization. The specific practices, on the other hand, are scale-dependent. Let’s have a look at what it means to implement Shape Up at a very small start-up and an organization that’s grown big enough for specialized roles and more structure.
Small enough to wing it
When your team is just two or three people, everybody does a bit of everything. Since a few people are wearing many hats and performing many roles, it’s difficult to commit long chunks of uninterrupted time to specific projects. The person doing the programming might also be answering customer requests and dealing with an infrastructure issue all at the same time.
It’s also easier to communicate and change course when you’re small. You can drop something in the group chat or talk about it in person and everyone’s immediately on the same page.
For these reasons, a tiny team can throw out most of the structure. You don’t need to work six weeks at a time. You don’t need a cool-down period, formal pitches or a betting table. Instead of parallel tracks with dedicated shapers and builders, the same people can alternate back and forth. Be deliberate about which hat you’re wearing and what phase you’re in. Set an appetite, shape what to do next, build it, then shape the next thing. Your bets might be different sizes each time: maybe two weeks here, three weeks there. You’re still shaping, betting, and building, but you’re doing it more fluidly without the rigid structure of cycles and cool-downs.
Big enough to specialize
After you hire more people, all of this fluidity flips from an asset to a liability. Winging it with ad-hoc meetings and chat room discussions doesn’t work anymore. Coordination starts to eat up more of your time and things begin to slip through the cracks.
This is when it makes sense to take on the structure of six-week cycles, cool-downs, and a formal betting table. With more people available to build, someone needs to carve out more time to do the work of figuring out what to build. This could mean a founder spends more time shaping than building, or it could mean elevating an employee from doing in-cycle design work to more out-of-cycle shaping work.
At Basecamp’s current size (about 50 people in the whole company, roughly a dozen in the product team) we’ve been able to specialize roles so teams of designers and programmers can work without any interruption in the cycles. A dedicated team called SIP (Security, Infrastructure, and Performance) handles technical work that’s lower in the stack and more structural. Our Ops team keeps the lights on. We have technical people on the Support team who can investigate problems raised by customers. All this means that we don’t need to interrupt the designers and programmers on our Core Product team who work on shaped projects within the cycles.
With dedicated shapers and builders, the picture is more structured. Shapers work on an “out of cycle” track. Cool-down between cycles gives everyone room to fix bugs and address loose ends that pop up. The betting table is held during cool-down and then bets are placed for the next cycle.