Shape Up Method

What is the Shape Up Method?

The Shape Up Method from 37 Signals describes how they approach product opportunity discovery and development. It captures processes that are used by development teams to shape ideas into time-boxed projects, bet, and build valuable products within set cycles.

With this approach, product teams are in a better position to minimize risks that could hinder or slow development. The method equips you on how to avoid scope creep and keep an eye on how things are going effectively. It helps to ensure timely development.

Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Product Strategy, introduced the method in the book Shape Up. It was the result of the company’s desire to find solutions to some new, peculiar challenges it faced.

The Shape Up Method is uniquely Basecamp. The software company said it’s not about Waterfall, Agile, or Scrum. It developed the approach from many years of trials and errors without relying greatly on those popular methodologies.

Some Shape Up Concepts

The book by Singer contains several concepts relating to this method. Below are some of the most important ones.

Work shaping

This is an important first step in Basecamp’s development process. The work is shaped before it is handed over to the developers to build. What the team does here is to make an abstract idea concrete enough by outlining crucial elements. However, these ideas retain some level of abstraction to enable teams to have room to exhibit their creativity.


This comes into the picture after work has been shaped. It is about choosing what project(s) to work on during a cycle. Senior members in a company come to the betting table to discuss what projects to do. Decisions are driven by pre-prepared pitches for individuals projects that members debate on. This process makes it possible to thoroughly assess a problem to be solved.

The stakeholders practically place bets to decide what pitches make it into a cycle. There’s no need for a higher authority to veto these bets.

Six-week cycles

Basecamp’s Shape Up approach involves working in six-week cycles. Based on its experience, the company found that shorter time boxes, such as sprints, aren’t sufficient.

Planning is done strictly for the defined six-week cycle with no carryover to the next. A fixed deadline for a cycle is expected to make teams to use time more efficiently.

A “cool-down” period lasting two weeks follows a cycle for developers to follow up on work.

Hill charts

In the Shape Up Method, Basecamp introduces the hill chart for monitoring the status of a project. The diagram portrays the idea that you’re moving from the unknown to the known when working on projects. It relates to each project and its scope or components.

Many things are still unknown when starting a project and you can find tasks to execute increasing – that’s going uphill. However, it gets to a point where you fully understand the solution and this leads to fewer, better-defined tasks.

How the Shape Up Method Can Help

This approach helps to ensure that developers deliver great results in solutions that they build. It gives you time to really think through problems early in the development process. It also helps you to strike a balance between concreteness and abstraction for proper team guidance.

The Shape Up Method gives the product development team ample time to build something. It allows more time than is commonly allowed for sprints in Agile. Two weeks for a sprint aren’t always enough to tie up all loose ends.

Furthermore, the method may also help to keep teams up and doing. While they have more time to work, team members know they have a deadline for delivering something.

Putting the Shape Up Method to Use

Basecamp, as it appears, has done well using this approach. Other companies in the software industry can also find it useful, perhaps, with some modifications. Management must buy into it, however, for it to deliver great results.

When using this approach, product leaders have a lot to do. They will have to convey the direction, plan, and outcomes clearly. This makes teams to be more effective in building the right solutions.

Singer’s book contains useful ideas if you’d love to implement this approach in some form. You could still find it useful even if you’re not looking to abandon your current process.

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