Ditch Scrum! 3 Shape Up Processes & Checklists to 5x Your Dev Cycle

Shape-Up-processes
We’ve cut our development cycle by 70% since making the move to Shape Up.

This alternative development method is a breath of fresh air from all things Scrum, Agile, Kanban, Scrumban, Fake Agile, Bad Agile… you get my drift.

What started off as Basecamp‘s internal approach to developing and shipping software at lightning speed, has become a clearly written (and illustrated), freely contributed, and easily accessible e-book: Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters.

Although I sincerely recommend you read the book, this post is here to save you from studying the 143 pages of text by providing you with three nifty checklist templates. The checklists take you through the Shape Up process and its 3 key phases: Shaping, betting, and building.

In this post, I’ll briefly touch on the fundamental concepts of Shape Up’s approach. I’ll also introduce each of the phases and their corresponding checklist.

Let’s get shaping!

Shape Up process: Key concepts

Shape-Up-Cycle
(Source)

“Shape Up is for product development teams who struggle to ship. If you’ve thought to yourself: Why can’t we ship like we used to? Or, I never have enough time to think about strategy. Then this book can help. You’ll learn language and techniques to define focused projects, address unknowns, and increase collaboration and engagement within your team.” – Ryan Singer, Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters

In 2019, Ryan Singer, Head of Strategy and Product at Basecamp, got the Shape Up approach down on paper in the ebook I mentioned in the introduction. Or, to read about Process Street‘s experience of Shape Up check out both of these two posts:

And finally, to learn about what it is that Basecamp do, check out the Youtube video below:

Great, with the introduction bits covered, it’s time to go over the key concepts that form the framework that is Shape Up.

Shape Up process: Glossary

For the full glossary visit this page.

Appetite: The amount of time we want to spend on a project, as opposed to an estimate.

Baseline: What customers are doing without the thing we’re currently building.

Bet: The decision to commit a team to a project for one cycle with no interruptions and an expectation to finish.

Circuit breaker: A risk management technique: Cancel projects that don’t ship in one cycle by default instead of extending them by default.

Cool-down: A two-week break between cycles to do ad-hoc tasks, fix bugs, and hold a betting table.

De-risk: Improve the odds of shipping within one cycle by shaping and removing rabbit holes.

Discovered tasks: Tasks the team discovers they need to do after they start getting involved in the real work.

Hill chart: A diagram showing the status of work on a spectrum from unknown to known to done.

Pitch: A document that presents a shaped project idea for consideration at the betting table.

Raw ideas: Requests or feature ideas that are expressed in words and haven’t been shaped.

Scopes: Parts of a project that can be built, integrated, and finished independently of the rest of the project.

Shape Up processes to help you get started

A cycle is a pre-determined period of time, usually six weeks (but it can be 2 or 4 weeks), where teams work uninterruptedly on projects. Within each cycle, there are three key phases within each cycle: shaping, betting, and building. As I mentioned in the intro, we at Process Street have developed a checklist to take you through each of these phases.

Process Street is a free and powerful way to manage recurring checklists and processes. It’s no-code software and super easy to use. If you do need clarification as you work through the Shape Up Process checklists, on how to use Process Street visit our help page. These templates will help you implement the Shape Up framework within your team.

The following sections provide a lowdown of the Shape Up process, starting with the first phase in the cycle: Shaping.

Shape Up process: Shaping 🔹

In the shaping process, you look at your current business and product priorities to determine what it is you want to address in the next build cycle. In shaping, the question is no longer “how long will it take to fix the problem?” (like in Scrum and other agile frameworks) but rather “how long are we willing to spend on fixing the problem?”

Shaping has four stages:

  • Setting boundaries;
  • Roughing out the elements;
  • Addressing risks;
  • And writing the pitch.

In shaping, the amount of time dedicated to solving each problem is called the appetite. The appetite determines how many weeks your team is willing to spend building the solution to a problem, and this time frame sets the boundary for the solution. Shape Up’s approach has an appetite size of a small batch of 2 weeks or a big batch of 6 weeks. None of the build cycles are longer than 6 weeks.

In the search for a solution, teams use a variety of techniques to rough out the elements of the solution (all of which are detailed in the book). The purpose of these techniques is to sketch out how the proposed solution is going to work.

As part of the shaping process, you’ll need to determine the risks, possible rabbit holes, and no goes of your project. To do this get a designer in the room, a service provider, a programmer, basically anyone who could be involved in the solution.

Ask them:

“Here is my proposed solution to solve this … problem, what am I missing?”“What could turn this from a 6 week build to an 18 week build?”

Ask the team to consider all of the ways the project could end up being extended. Ask them the best possible ways to avoid scope creep. Try to solve each of the problems or risks that arise. If you can’t find a solution for the risk then it means you are not ready to solve the problem and pitch the solution.

Once the boundaries have been set, the elements roughed out, and risks addressed, it is time to write the pitch. This is a document that forms the structure of your project and solution.

Now you’ve got the basics of the shaping process you’re ready to dive in and start using the checklist.

Shape Up Process: Shaping checklist

This checklist will take you through the Shaping process and help you grasp the difference between shaped versus unshaped work; set appetites; design the right level of abstraction; and conceptualize breadboards and fat marker sketches.

Click here for the Shape Up Process: Shaping checklist!

Shape Up process: Betting 🏇🏻

During the cool-down period which comes at the end of a cycle (I covered this earlier), there will be a number of pitches placed onto the betting table.

What’s a betting table?

A betting table is a meeting during cool-down when stakeholders decide which pitches to bet on in the next cycle. The potential bets to consider are either new pitches shaped during the last six weeks or possibly one or two older pitches that someone specifically chose to revive. To choose which pitch to run with the Shape Up approach uses a betting table. Team members then place their bets by choosing which pitch they want to bet on for the coming cycle. Both the number of bets and the superiority of the person betting, account for the selection of which pitch/ pitches are chosen for each cycle.

One thing that makes Shape Up particularly unique is that the framework does not allow for a backlog. Meaning that every time there is a new betting table there are new pitches, you always start with a clean slate. This means that pitches from the previous cycle’s betting table should not spill over. With Shape Up, there is no backlog. Just a few good pitches to consider.

Now we’ve covered the basics of the betting process you’re ready to dive in and start using the checklist.

Shape Up Process: Betting

This checklist focuses on the second phase of the Shape Up process: betting. There are a few critical points to touch on before you get stuck into the betting process. The second phase is based on two things: placing bets, and the betting table.

Click here for the Shape Up Process: Betting checklist!

Shape Up process: Building 🏗

Building consists of 3 stages:

  • Getting one piece done;
  • Mapping the scopes;
  • And forming the hill chart.

The building process will take a little more explaining, if you’re already clued up on Shape Up processes feel free to jump straight to the checklist.

At Shape Up, they recommend building in a vertical slice by “getting one piece done”. Building in a vertical slice means focusing on getting one “scope” done as quickly as possible to gain momentum in a project. By focusing on getting one piece completely done means that both frontend and backend elements must be built together.
Each project is made of a handful of scopes all of which will form a scope map featuring all of the scopes that make up the entire project. In order to show the progress of each of these scopes, you use a hill chart.

Hill chart ⛰ 🏞

Shape Up Hill Chart

A hill chart is a diagram showing the status of work on a spectrum from unknown to known to done. The uphill side of the diagram features the phase of a task, scope, or project where there are still unknowns or unsolved problems. Whereas the downhill side of the diagram shows the phase of a task, scope, or project where all unknowns are solved and only the execution is left.

So, in other words, the hill starts at the bottom (left of the diagram), as you work on solving the problem and all of its corresponding elements you start climbing up the hill. As you’re figuring out all of the unknowns, you’re moving up the hill. But, there reaches a point where you resolve all the unknowns and the rest is execution, that’s when you start going downhill (right side of the diagram).

Take a look at the hill diagram below for an example of progress being shown on the up/downhill:

Shape Up Scopes
(Source)

As you can see, there are 3 scopes being worked on, and, thanks to the hill diagram, you can see where each of these scopes stands. On the uphill there are a bunch of unknowns for the “future-applying edits”, but on the downhill, there are two elements that are resolved and executed. The hill diagram makes it easier for both managers to ask “how far along on a project are you?” and for the team to provide a clear answer.

Now that you’ve got the basics of the shaping process, you’re ready to dive in and start using the checklist.

Shape Up Process: Building checklist

This checklist takes you through the third and final phase of Shape Up’s process, building. Before starting the building process two vital steps must occur:

  • Shaping: Setting boundaries, roughing out the elements, addressing risks, and writing the pitch.
  • Betting: Placing bets on the betting table and firmly committing to specific projects without creating a backlog.

With those steps covered you’re ready to begin the building process.

Click here for the Shape Up Process: Building checklist!

Shape Up process: Summing up

The Shape Up method is still fairly new, because of this it remains intertwined with Basecamp and their preferred way of doing things.

Nevertheless, with some thought, experimentation, and adaptation I see no reason why Shape Up can’t be your secret to cutting your Dev. cycle, reducing unnecessary meetings, and shipping quickly (and more often)!

Below is a list of key takeaways sourced from the conclusion of Shape Up’s book, I’ve added the relevant template beside each point.

List of key concepts

  • Shaped vs. unshaped work: Part of the shaping process.
  • Setting appetites instead of estimates: Part of the shaping process.
  • Designing at the right level of abstraction: Part of the shaping process.
  • Concepting with breadboards and fat marker sketches: Part of the shaping process.
  • Making bets with a capped downside (the circuit breaker) and honoring them with uninterrupted time: Part of the betting process.
  • Choosing the right cycle length (six weeks): Part of the shaping, and building process.
  • A cool-down period between cycles: After the building process and before the following shaping process.
  • Breaking projects apart into scopes: Part of the building process.
  • Downhill versus uphill work and communicating about unknowns: Part of the building process.
  • Scope hammering to separate must-haves from nice-to-haves: Part of the building process.

There we have it! 🚀

P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Process Street blog to get notified of our upcoming articles. We also have a podcast “Tech Out Loud” featuring content written by respected industry leaders such as Peep Laja, Sujan Patel, Tomasz Tunguz, and more!

Did you find this article useful? Do you have any questions left unanswered? If so, let us know in the comments below! Who knows, maybe we’ll answer them in a follow-up post!

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Molly Stovold

Hey, I'm Molly, Junior Content Writer at Process Street with a First-Class Honors Degree in Development Studies & Spanish. I love writing so much that I also have my own blog where I write about everything that interests me; from traveling solo to mindful living. Check it out at mollystovold.com.


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