Thoughts on Shape Up

Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters is an online free-to-read book by Basecamp that talks about their process of building software. I think it is safe to call it a project management book. Though I don't use Basecamp, I am a fan of their philosophy of building products. I have read their previous books Rework and Getting Real. If there is one theme that cuts across all their work - it is the idea of doing away with what is not essential. It could be called a frugal approach to product building, where they aspire to do more with less by questioning what is necessary.

In typical Basecamp style, the ideas in the book are broken into small, digestible chunks. The ideas are rather simple, but there is a lot to be learnt from what is excluded.

Shape up is a book about reducing risk. And the biggest risk when you start a project is not shipping the project. Often times, working on long projects with no definite end can destroy a team's morale. In fact, this whole methodology came into existence because Basecamp went through something similar themselves. Anyone who has worked on software projects is aware of the mystical nature of software estimates. It is not rare to see projects taking twice or even thrice their estimated time. The blame is usually placed on the initial estimate, and there has been a lot written about the 'art' of estimation.

Shape up begins by throwing the practice of open ended estimation out of the window. It makes an argument to change time to a constant and work backwards from there. It proposes a methodology where all the building process happens on a six week cycle. If a project is too big to fit into six weeks, the scope is hammered to fit into six weeks. If a project overshoots six weeks, it is abandoned and shelved. This might seem harsh but it just drives home the point that nothing is more important than shipping. They arrived at Six weeks through trial and error, and this time period can be different for different companies.

This is also the point where most people will find Shape Up as a methodology, a tough sell to their teams. Having the discipline to stick to this schedule is tough. It requires a change in mindset. Unless it flows top down and everyone is convinced, it is tough to implement wholesale. This is especially true if you are used to working in a reactive way. Unless you are in a leadership position, capable of influencing the way your team is organized, it can seem like Shape up requires a lot of buy in from everyone involved. But it is not all or nothing.

I chose to see Shape Up as a philosophy for building things and reducing anxiety in general. And it can be applied to your side projects as well. The book offers a lot of practical ways to 'Shape up' an idea to a stage where it can be picked up for execution. I liked the idea of bread boarding, fat marker sketches, and 'scope hammering' an idea to remove the uncertainties before picking it up for execution. I also liked the idea of doing away with a 'Backlog' and pitching a project in terms of the 'Apettite' for picking it up. Not having the burden of an bottomless pit of ideas can be quite liberating.

The book does not take a prescriptive tone and it is full of real examples where the methodologies in the book were put to use and saved time for the team. It is an organization talking about what worked for them in great depth, and that is always fascinating to read. I would recommend you give it a read if you are interested or involved in building digital products in any capacity.

About the book's author #

Shape up is the work of Ryan Singer, who has been working on Basecamp's design and strategy since their early days. Ryan has been influential in my life because watching his Play by Play video early on in my career made a lot of things clear in my head. I had a bit of an identity crisis because I was fascinated by product design, but I was more into code than graphic design. Watching Ryan talk about his process made me realize that is okay for the lines to be not clearly defined.

I have been following Ryan's thinking on design through his Twitter handle, his blog, and the conference talks he has given. Shape up, in many ways, is the formalization of all the ideas he has been talking about over the years.