Shape Up’s pitches reduce the distance between managers and implementers while actually giving both sides more control over what’s most important to them.
What is a Pitch
Shape Up is Basecamp’s approach to project management. According to Shape Up, any work must first be shaped and pitched before it’s planned.
A pitch is refined out of the shaping exploration. A pitch includes 3 key elements: the problem, the appetite, and the solution. The whole is presented as a pitch in the same sense as pitching an idea for venture funding. The first key audience is managers who prioritize work, followed by implementers who must understand the high-level value and direction.
The three key elements target this high-level picture of the work for both audiences. The problem paints the story for the current situation and how it’s falling short in a specific way, who’s effected by it, and what is gained by solving it. Appetite succinctly communicates how much investment the problem is worth. Lastly, a high-level solution is proposed. It should be clear how the solution delivers the expected value and that it should be deliverable in the expected appetite. This is especially critical since work is automatically not extended if it exceeds its timeline.
Shape Up goes to great lengths to ensure pitched solutions include only the minimum necessary detail. The key elements should be quickly discernable, enough to know we have a sufficiently small scope and no more.
A pitch may also include elements such as work explicitly not included and expectable rabbit holes to avoid.
Just the Essence
I think the core of this pitching approach is a focus on the problem and a rigorous insistence on only the essential solution details.
Let me summarize what ends up in a pitch again
- Mostly a focus on understanding the problem, who it helps, and value from solving it
- Appetite: the max time worth investing in a solution
- Only enough solution to know it’s possible, with other details intentionally removed
- Key boundary cases for what work is in or out
Pitches define the minimal interface that matters to both management and programmers.
The managers need all this information to decide if they want to schedule work. It’s often enough information to decide if the work is worth scheduling, and there isn’t any information the manager is uninterested in.
Likewise, the programmers need all of this information to make well informed decisions about implementation. It likely tells the programmers everything the management expects of them, and it doesn’t include any extra information that might unnecessarily constrain their implementation.
Exploring the solution well enough to feel certain it solves the problem within the given appetite may require more detailed exploration than shows up in the pitch. Excluding that work may feel like a waste, but the rigorous limitation is key.
Reduced Accidental complexity
This minimal specification may cause some discovery work to be lost. In exchange it reduces the risk of accidental complexities. The people closest to a certain kind of work are the ones making the relevant decisions.
The manager has more predictable control over timelines and delivered value. There’s no decisions down the chain to renew work that passes the desired investment. There’s no unnecessarily large estimates because developers imagined a solution not knowing the appetite when, with the appetite, they might have found a fitting solution.
In return, the implementing team is handed as few details as possible. They have maximal freedom to make tradeoffs to meet the timeline while still delivering the core value. By limiting solution details, the pitch avoid accidentally pressuring the team into decisions not essential to the core value (e.g. certain visual controls, layouts, etc). The team is also prepared to make good tradeoff decisions quickly because they’re working off the same pitch as the management, and pitch doesn’t skimp on problem context.
Shared View, better alignment
A shared concrete definition between management and developers minimizes chances for miscommunication or value misalignment. Everybody is looking at one definition. Everybody is steeped in the problem to solve, but also aligned on a general solution direction.
There’s no game of telephone where work is repeatedly broken down from discovery to requirements to work items for developers, which often leaves the programmers without true understanding of the problem context. This lowers the risk of developers focusing on specific tasks but missing the overall expected value.
Conversely, managers also don’t have to parse a sea of broken down work items and chart out the value they want delivered. Everyone is always working off the units of self-contained value managers are expecting to have delivered.
I have pretty high confidence in the core idea behind pitchs. I use many of the same core elements in my duck docs. While I haven’t exactly used duck docs for project management, I’ve used them for many years with great success to co-iterate with various stakeholders, understand problems, and reduce uncertainty.
I see a lot of benefit in shaping and pitches. But, I also still have some uncertainties.
Specifically, Shape Up frames the work as typically being 2 week or 6 week increments. However, I’ve long followed the philosophy that work over 2 weeks is too big to gauge effectively and must be broken down.
The longer timeframe isn’t necessarily an intrinsic to the good I see in pitches. In fact, I think stories are supposed to be much like pitches in focusing on a user-centric unit of value. However, I very commonly see stories go awry and assume a lot about the overall solution, if not directly specifying a solution instead of a problem.
I wonder if the longer timelines are worth the uncertainty for the tradeoff of making it easier to specify self-contained work. Perhaps breaking down to sub-week units of value applies too much pressure to lean into an overarching plan, and thus stories become more like tasks or pre-determined implementation steps.
What happens to small tasks?
I’m also unclear about what happens all the little work, like small bugs and minor UI tweaks.
Part of Shape Up is a 2-week cool down after each 6-week cycle. Perhaps the small work is concentrated into those. I suppose that would reduce flow interruptions.
Perhaps there’s just less small work if you consider projects closed books (if it was good enough to ship it’s good enough to leave) and value props have to be big enough to get attention. Neither of those sound like bad things.
Chapter 15 warns against reacting to the small tasks and feedback that pop up after a release. It feels natural to respond to feedback and these items feel like quick wins, but I suppose it isn’t worth it if they end up disrupting the larger flow of prioritization.
Perhaps the average work size is also larger when the appetite is fully inclusive of everything from pitch to delivery. Design, development, and all kinds of testing need to fit in the appetite. Estimates notoriously bias to only the dev work. Unaccounted time from handoffs are a common schedule buster. It’s hard to estimate when there’s not just one responsible party. Actually, It’s hard estimate in any case.
There’s still a lot of unknowns for me around scope sizes and how they interact with specification quality. I’ll need to experiment with these ideas to feel out the balance.
I think shape up identified a key separation of concerns in project management. Pitches define a minimal problem-focused work specification that gives both managers and developers everything they need, and only what they need, to make effective decisions. This minimal specification improves alignment by keeping one shared work definition. It allows a separation of concerns that reduces accidental complexities while giving both managers and implementers more control over the parts most important to them.
I still have many outstanding questions about the technique that will probably require first-hand experiments to resolve. I’m excited to, at minimum, use some of these ideas to refine my duck docing process.