Unbundling Shape Up: Principles for Product Teams

Understanding Shape Up’s flexibility as a set of guiding principles rather than a rigid process is instrumental in managing projects in today’s varied organizational landscapes.

Principles

Fixed Time, Variable Scope

Emphasizing time-boxed projects with a flexible scope, this principle allows teams to adjust deliverables based on time constraints, ensuring quality, timing, and costs.

Appetite

Shifting the focus from “how long will it take?” to “how much are we willing to spend?” enhances high-level decision-making and communication, making risk management a central aspect of creative project work.

Small Autonomous Teams

Cal Newport’s argues knowledge work cannot be organized for others. It must be organized by the ones doing the actual work. Clear problems or shaped packages empower teams to be agile and make swift decisions.

Scope-Based Working (Full Stack + Design )

This means the complete (small, autonomous) team is working on one scope of the project at a time, creating shippable increments. This sidesteps the waterfall trap—like preparing exhaustive wireframes and Figma screens before development—preventing last-minute developer trade-offs and fostering a more fluid, efficient project progression. I am currently building dumplink to help teams with this.

Distinguish between strategic and reactive work

Use ticket systems primarily for operational, reactive tasks. For strategic work, such as feature development, assign problems and let teams self-organize around solutions.

Framing and Shaping with Clear Delineation

When approaching Framing and Shaping, maintain a clear separation between discussing the problem to be solved and the solution itself. This clarity ensures a focused and effective approach to project planning and execution.

Framing

This involves defining the high-level concept of a project. Understanding the problem or opportunity is key, along with establishing boundaries and objectives for the project.

Shaping

Following framing, shaping provides detailed guidance without micromanaging. Techniques like breadboarding and fat marker sketches offer direction while preserving the team’s creative and problem-solving autonomy.

Challenges in Application

Almost all of them help almost all of the teams. But some situations make it hard to apply all.

  • Organizational Politics: Power dynamics and internal politics can hinder the adoption of Shape Up, especially when it challenges established processes.
  • R&D Mode: In Research & Development, the need for faster cycles and continuous innovation can require adjustments in how Shape Up is applied.
  • Team Composition: The team’s profile, such as having separate UX/UI designers versus coding product designers like at Basecamp, can necessitate a different approach.

Adapting Shape Up in complex environments demands an understanding of its principles and the agility to apply them in diverse scenarios. It’s less about following a set playbook and more about using these principles as tools to navigate unique project challenges. This tailored approach harnesses Shape Up’s full potential, ensuring that projects are both effective and responsive to the dynamic needs of modern organizations.