Book Review: Shape Up

shape up book

I recently read Shape Up based on the recommendation of peers at work looking to iterate on their product development life cycle. Like many companies we follow scrum loosely. Scrum works well once an initiative moves into delivery but we struggle with the upfront discovery, definition, and design phases. Historically we have done annual planning, spending countless months to create outcomes, debate initiatives, and adjust the organizational structure only to realize 2 months in to the new year we need to pivot. Shape Up is a process which allows teams to quickly discover, define, develop and pivot.

37Signals has made the book freely available online. Below are some of thoughts on some of it’s topics.

Time as a Constraint

The biggest change Shape Up proposes is using time as a constraint. Shape Up introduces the concept of a “Cycle”, which is a time box of 6 weeks. Shape Up correctly calls out a major pain point of scrum - a 2 week sprint just too short to accomplish meaningful when developing a product.

Shaping the Pitch

The cycle is meant to be heads down delivery which means much of the discovery and definition of the problem needs to be completed before hand. Shape Up spends much of the time outlining a process referred to as “The Pitch”. It is a method for product teams to form a hypothesis, present a proposal, and for the organization to bet on it for the next 6 weeks. The solution to the pitch must fit within a cycle otherwise the problem is too big.

The process of fitting a pitch into the timespan is consider the “shaping” process. In the shaping process the team is refining scope, throwing out any unnecessary work, and refining the approach so that the goal can be achieved within the cycle. Compromises will be made which is all part of the process.

Multiple pitches will be made by multiple teams for the upcoming cycle. The Pitch process gives the teams a chance to prioritize which pitches to bet on for the next cycle. There’s a variety of factors which may make a pitch approved or rejected. The important change is the conversation and alignment which happen or the various pitches. When a cycle starts everyone should know which objectives they are targeting and why those objectives were picked.

Cool down

Teams often struggle to balance new development with support and tech debt. Shape Up acknowledges that support and tech debt needs to be worked on by creating a 2-week period between cycles in which engineering teams can focus on paying down some of the tech debt while the pitch process is wrapping up.

Overall Impression

I liked that Shape Up can easily plug into an existing scrum process. The book covers delivery but I can’t say it shared anything revolutionary within the phase. The pitch process nicely drops right in front of teams using scrum for delivery. I can see how a pitch could easily map to epics and flow right into a standard scrum process. I also think focusing on output at the end of a cycle removes a lot of the stress teams feel to demonstrate meaningful process every 2-weeks. Teams can think bigger and solve larger issues with the increased bandwidth.

We are just wrapping up our first pitch process and are about to go into delivery with our first cycle. We hope Shape Up will help us break down our large, long-term goals into achievable milestones that provide incremental functionality along the way.