Basecamp's Shape Up system for speedily shipping software that works

This week, I read an online book called Shape Up by the folks at Basecamp. I’m a long-time reader of the publications Basecamp puts out and a fan of how they think and work. There is a sense of clear and optimized thinking that I get when I read their stuff and I really like that.

Shape Up details Basecamp’s methodology for shipping quality software in a speedy way. Naturally, if you’re familiar with the attitude of nonconformity that’s usually present in Basecamp’s stuff, the book goes against common wisdom about the best way to ship software.

Central to the Shape Up method is the concept of shaping work before it’s even considered for deserving the team’s full attention. The process of shaping involves a small senior group that defines key elements of a solution for a real problem. The purpose is to ensure a project is worth betting on before the team says “yes” to it.

At Basecamp, they use software development cycles called big batch and small batch. The former is a project that the team has enough of an appetite for, to schedule it in a 6-week cycle, and the latter, a 2-week cycle. By the time a project gets to this phase, it has been pitched and bet on.

When an idea for a project is brought to the table, it must be pitched. That is, it must go through a process of iterative refinement to the point where the work is clearly defined or shaped before it is bet on as something the team wants to invest in. The whole process reminds me of something I heard or read by the late Stephen Covey: “Measure twice, cut once.”

That principle, to me, means know what you’re doing before you do it and make sure what you’re going to do is meaningful to the larger goal or outcome. The focus of this is to eliminate wasted effort and ensure that the stuff that gets done is the right stuff, which could arguably be the definition of effectiveness.

Shape Up was an enlightening and very practical read not only from the perspective of learning the method, but also from gaining insights into how software gets shipped rapidly and in a good way at a high-performing SaaS company. I highly recommend it! You can read it free here.

If you’ve read Shape Up and have implemented it for your product, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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