Appetite, how hungry you are. Now repurposed as a useful project management term for how time the team wants to invest.

I’ve been reading Shape Up, the Basecamp approach to project management. One key term they define is appetite: how much time the team wants to spend on a project.

Appetite is not an estimate. Rather than deciding how much time work will take, they ask how much they’re willing to invest and then look for a solution (if any) that fits in that timeframe. They also define circuit breaker or the amount of time after which the project is automatically dropped.

I find these terms very useful. Challenging work that carries from one sprint to the next is a frequent source of bad feelings. It feels like failure or conflict. Canceling the work is even harder. So, work can quickly spend several times the investment that was expected and for work that wasn’t really a priority.

Appetite communicates from the outset how much investment the management thinks the work is worth. This changes the whole dynamic of the coversation.

A developer won’t be surprised if the work gets cancelled if it oversteps the appetite. It’s not necessarily that they couldn’t solve the problem, we just found out the problem takes more to solve than we want to invest.

The implications for work planning are even more wide-reaching. When asked to estimate, a developer’s first intuition usually isn’t the simplest solution. Given an estimate, the managers may deprioritize items because they see the investment as too large. However, a developer given a problem and an appetite can probably think of many solutions and find one that fits in the desired time frame. Thus, the solutions are better aligned with the expected value from the outset.

Appetites almost feel obvious in retrospect, which is why I suspect they’re probably quite effective. They better align different parties on how valuable it is to solve a problem, set better expectations for scoping solutions from the outset, and set an easier tone for dropping work that oversteps its worth.