Basecamp's Shape Up Method

A recent tweet from Dave Rupert that led me to an interview with Jason Fried describing backlogs as piles of guilt inspired me to look closer at his viewpoint. After following a few links, I found Chapter 7: Bets, Not Backlogs of the Shape Up book. The information was intriguing, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the entire book. What I discovered was an extremely well-designed framework of methods built on agile processes.

A system this mature is a product of years of inspection and adaptation. I believe they started with established practices and tools and through an iterative process developed tools and practices that met their principles, needs, and values. It has many similarities to popular agile frameworks like Scrum, which are also built on agile values and principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto. Scrum doesn't work for everyone, but its practices and tools satisfy the principles, values, and needs of many organizations.

Agile Values

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Agile Principles

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The Spine Model

I briefly touched on the Spine Model in a previous blog post. This model has been used to help teams make sense of their work environment, improve collaboration, and help organizations to be more agile. Many conversations about how to work as a team often start with a discussion about practices and tools. Without understanding the principles, values, and needs first, the choices are preference-based often leading to ineffective communication. When creating processes, tools should support practices that apply principles which leverage values to support needs.

  1. Needs: “From the perspective of {X}, this part of the system exists in order that {Y} can be achieved.”
  2. Values: “We optimize the system for {X}, so that meeting the Needs is more likely.”
  3. Principles: “We leverage {X} to get more of what we Value.”
  4. Practices: “We do {X} to apply the Principles that matter in this context.”
  5. Tools: We use {X} to apply our Practices more efficiently.”

Walking the Shape Up Spine

Basecamp's customized way of working based on agile values and principles is a powerful example of how teams can customize processes to meet the unique needs of their organization. The caveat is that it takes time, so starting with an established agile framework is often the first step. Using the Spine Model is a great way to frame the first step conversation as you get started.

Disclaimer: The walkthrough of the Spine model below is my perception of the needs, values, and principles of the Basecamp organization. It is based on assumptions after reading the Shape Up book. The purpose is to show how the Spine Model can be used to transform the way teams work together.

Needs

Learning more about the Spine Model, you find there are two different aspects of needs, the needs of the system itself and the needs of the individuals within the systems. I have narrowed the scope to quickly frame the conversation about the needs the Shape Up method supports.

  1. Complete only the work that matters
  2. Minimize the overhead of the planning process
  3. Maximize team member energy and morale
  4. Release features that have value and impact
  5. Ability to change course to act on the unexpected

Values

The Shape Up System is optimized for:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Focus
  3. Quality
  4. Flexibility
  5. Calm and Order
  6. Responsibility and Empowerment

Principles

We leverage ...... to ......:

  1. We focus on ideas that are current rather than creating and maintaining a backlog. Determining the important work should be simple and focus on what is important today rather than on past ideas.

  2. We use a fixed time, variable scope model that starts with a number and ends with a design, rather than starting with a design and ending with a number (estimate) to improve the accuracy of an idea's scope.

  3. The way to figure out what needs to be done is by doing. We recognize that an understanding of the full scope of an idea or work item is only known once the work has started.

  4. Teams that can focus solely on the work scoped to an iteration cycle will provide higher quality deliverables.

  5. Teams that have the autonomy to determine how to complete the work needed to deliver a solution will be engaged and happy.

  6. Iteration cycles are short enough to complete work that matters but long enough to minimize the time required for planning.

  7. Providing time between iteration cycles will energize teams and allow them to sustain the pressure of iteration cycle deadlines.

  8. Tasks separated by person or role won't add up to a finished project early enough.

  9. Organizing tasks into meaningful parts of a problem that can be completed independently results in higher quality solutions.

Practices

The following practices are used to support the principles outlined above. Many of these practices can also be mapped to one or more of the agile values and principles. The Shape Up practices from a high-level are organized by Shaping, Betting and Building.

Shaping

The practice of taking a raw idea and determining it's value along with rough sketches of a solution to address risks. The deliverable is a summary called a pitch that summarizes the problem, constraints, solution, risks, and limitations. Intentionally, the fidelity of the pitch is kept low. There are two tools described below that support this practice, breadboards and fat marker sketches. Keeping the fidelity low, even lower than a wireframe keeps the designer from being biased by the shaping of the solution.

Shaping also has boundaries to determine how valuable the raw idea is. This is referred to as the appetite. The appetites come in two sizes, a Small Batch and a Big Batch. The Small Batch is smaller than the iteration cycle, while the Big Batch is expected to take the entire cycle.

Basecamp Principles
  • #1: We focus on ideas that are current rather than creating and maintaining a backlog. Determining the important work should be simple and focus on what is important today rather than on past ideas.
  • #3: We recognize that an understanding of the full scope of an idea or work item is only known once the work is being done. The way to figure out what needs to be done is by doing
  • #5: Teams that have the autonomy to determine how to complete the work needed to deliver a solution will be engaged and happy.
Agile Principles
  • #5: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • #11: The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Betting

Betting takes place outside of the iteration cycle and is the act of determining what to work on next. The event is referred to as the Betting Table. The stakeholders come together and decide what work will be committed to in the next cycle. Committing to work in the next iteration cycle is called a Bet. The betting always starts with a clean slate, requiring stakeholders to bring pitches they champion to the table. This makes the process efficient and keeps the focus on the work that is important today, rather than on ideas from the past.

The Bet is for a Six-week cycle. They found that "six weeks is enough time to finish a project from start to end, yet short enough to see the end when starting." During the six week cycle, the teams are protected from distractions allowing them to build their momentum and focus all their effort on the Bets.

Following the cycle is a Cool-down period. This period is when the stakeholders meet at the Betting Table to bet on pitches for the next six-week cycle. It is also a period where teams do not have any scheduled work. The programmers and designers are empowered to choose what to work on. This removes the pressure of always having a deadline to meet.

Basecamp Principles
  • #1: We focus on ideas that are current rather than creating and maintaining a backlog. Determining the important work should be simple and focus on what is important today rather than past ideas.
  • #2: We use a fixed time, variable scope model that starts with a number and ends with a design, rather than starting with a design and ending with a number (estimate) to improve the accuracy of an idea's scope.
  • #4: Teams that can focus solely on the work scoped to an iteration cycle will provide higher quality deliverables.
  • #6: Iteration cycles are short enough to complete work that matters but long enough to minimize the time required for planning.
  • #7: Providing time between iteration cycles will energize teams and allow them to sustain the pressure of iteration cycle deadlines.
Agile Principles
  • #7: Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  • #8: Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Building

Once the six-week cycle starts the teams start breaking down the work into scopes in a process called scope mapping. Scope mapping determines the parts of the project that can be built, integrated, and finished independently from the rest of the project.

The work is organized by project tasks opposed to separating it by person or role. This assures the focus is on a scope of work that the team can swarm on and deliver. Since the bet is for a short cycle, this process assures there is completed work at the end of the cycle. Any work that is not complete will be abandoned based on the circuit breaker agreement. This is an agreement to cancel projects that don't ship in one cycle by default, rather than extending them.

The circuit breaker has a powerful effect. It drives the self-empowered teams to scope the items to fit the timebox. They use a process called scope hammering as they define the scopes to determine the nice-to-haves from the must-haves. Once the must-haves are identified, the team can prioritize and focus on the critical path to delivering the scoped work.

Basecamp Principles
  • #3: The way to figure out what needs to be done is by doing. We recognize that an understanding of the full scope of an idea or work item is only known once the work has started
  • #8: Tasks separated by person or role won't add up to a finished project early enough.
  • #9: Organizing tasks into meaningful parts of a problem that can be completed independently results in higher quality solutions
Agile Principles
  • #2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  • #5: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done
  • #7: Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  • #9: Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility
  • #10: Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  • #11: The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Tools

  • Breadboards: A UI concept that defines affordances and their connections without visual styling. Used during the shaping process to determine the solution for a problem that is delivered as a pitch at the betting table.

  • Fat Marker Sketches: A sketch of a UI concept at very low fidelity drawn with a thick line. Used during the shaping process to determine the solution for a problem that is delivered as a pitch at the betting table.s.

  • Scope: Integrated slices of the solution that are created during the building process to determine work that can be delivered together.

  • To-do list: Lists of scoped work that the teams use to collaborate on the work that needs to be completed together.

  • Hill Chart: A chart that allows stakeholders to efficiently determine the status of the scoped work throughout the six-week cycle.

Summary

This is a high-level overview of the Shape Up method. I highly recommend reading the book. It provides a more in-depth look into the experiential learning that defines how the Basecamp organization works together. Even if all the practices don't work for your team or organization, it is a quick read that will provide inspiration and ideas that can be applied to many teams working towards a culture of agility and continuous improvement.

Resources