Shape Up Method

What is the Shape Up Method?

The Shape Up Method describes the specific processes used by product development teams to shape, bet, and build meaningful products. It gives teams language and specific techniques to address the risks and unknowns at each stage of product development with the ultimate goal of shipping a great product on time.

What’s the History of the Shape Up Method?

The Shape Up Method is based on Basecamp’s own internal product development approach. It was externally introduced in the book Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters by Ryan Singer, Head of Product Strategy at Basecamp.

According to Singer, “[o]ne of the core tensions in product management is the urgency of day-to-day implementation details vs. the necessity of strategic planning. Left unresolved, this tension leads to a slew of practical problems (missed deadlines, tangled codebases) and low morale.”

It was Basecamp’s own growing pains that led the company to look for a way to address a new set of challenges (e.g., massive projects without clear boundaries and firm deadlines; long-term strategic considerations eclipsed by day-to-day product management issues; and the ability to ship meaningful products on time).

Over time, Basecamp created what would eventually be known as the Shape Up Method. The method aims to better define and prioritize projects before handing off to teams to build and ship.


Why Use this Approach?

The Shape Up Method helps product teams think more deeply about the right problems much earlier in the development process and start shipping meaningful products on time.

Product leaders shape – or define – a project concretely enough so that the team gets moving in the right direction. However, they need to work abstractly enough so that the team maintains its autonomy to develop its own solutions. Shape Up’s six-week work cycle gives teams sufficient time to build a product start to finish. Since the option of bumping out a deadline isn’t part of the Shape Up approach, the team must work efficiently within the given timeframe.

Explore the Shape Up Method with these practical tips.Build your own product development roadmap with our free template ➜

Key Concepts

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Here are some of the key concepts of the Shape Up Method:

  • Six-week work cycle. Provides a reasonable timeframe for building something meaningful and a firm deadline that encourages the team to use time efficiently and intentionally.
  • Work shaping. A small senior group explores and defines a project before handing off to the team to build. Shaping projects, or pre-work, endeavors to strike a balance between being concrete enough to provide direction, yet abstract enough to give teams room to build. The shaping process helps solve open questions before releasing it to a project team.
  • Teams bear responsibility. Teams have greater autonomy to define tasks, make adjustments to scope, and get down to the business of doing their best work. This also means that managers can focus on shaping better projects rather than micromanaging teams.
  • Reducing risk. At its core, the Shape Up Method seeks to reduce the risk of not shipping on time.
  • Betting. The process of choosing a project for a six-week cycle, thus prioritizing a project for development. 41% of product managers are averaging 3 / 5 on the scale of how happy they are with their process for planning and prioritizing initiatives. Read more.

How to Implement

The Shape Up Method requires product leaders to effectively communicate direction, outcomes, and intent. That way, teams are free to solve, build, and ship.

If you’re interested in implementing Shape Up in Basecamp, this handy how-to will help you get started.

Want to improve your product development process? Read the Agile Product Manager's Guide to Building Better Roadmaps