Using Shape Up - What Works, What We've Changed, What's Next

Chris D'Aloisio profile image Chris D'Aloisio 2024-02-09


Project management isn’t just about keeping tasks on track to achieve a predefined outcome; it’s about delivering value to people. That’s where the Shape Up methodology, pioneered by Basecamp, stands out. It’s not your typical project management style – it breaks away from the conventional Agile frameworks such as Scrum, offering a fresh, focused way to steer projects.

Shape Up consists of six-week, time-boxed cycles, allowing teams to dive deep into their work without the distractions of ongoing sprints and endless backlogs. This approach brings a clarity of purpose to each cycle, making it easier for teams to produce impactful work. It’s a game-changer for those who want to see real progress without getting bogged down in ceremonies and task switching.

In this post, we’re going to explore how Shape Up has influenced the Tech Team’s ability to deliver value. We’ll give you a sneak peek into how we plan to evolve this approach further, aiming for better project outcomes in the future.

Understanding the Shape Up Method

Shape Up isn’t just a methodology; it’s a shift in mindset. At its heart, Shape Up champions projects of fixed time and flexible scope. Projects are tackled in six-week cycles, providing a clear endpoint and fostering a sense of urgency.

Unlike traditional project management that often stretches timelines to fit the scope, Shape Up flips the script – the scope is adjusted to fit the timeline. This ensures projects don’t overextend and results are delivered consistently.

The methodology also introduces ‘cool-down’ periods following each cycle. These two-week spans allow teams to recharge, reflect, and prepare for the upcoming cycle on their own time. This break from the grind is crucial, preventing burnout and keeping project approaches and solutions fresh.

Deep work periods are another cornerstone. By reducing meetings and daily standups common in methodologies like Scrum, Shape Up allows teams to immerse deeply in their tasks. This undisturbed focus leads to higher quality outputs and often, breakthrough innovations. It’s all about giving teams the room they need to think, create, and solve problems without the constant distraction of administrative overhead.

In Shape Up, autonomy is key. Teams are trusted to figure out the best way to tackle their projects. This empowerment not only boosts morale but also leads to more inventive and tailored solutions.

Customizing Shape Up to Fit Our Needs

Embracing Shape Up doesn’t mean rigidly sticking to its every rule. It’s about making the methodology work for you. At Bellroy, we’ve tailored Shape Up to better align with our dynamic needs, proving its adaptability and effectiveness.

One significant change we made is the introduction of a separate “roaming” team. Operating within the six-week cycles, this team has an allocated programme of work, but is deliberately left with capacity to deal with high-value, time-sensitive tasks that come up at short notice. This flexibility allows us to respond swiftly to urgent needs without disrupting the flow of ongoing projects.

This customization has significantly improved our responsiveness to other teams’ demands and schedules. The Tech Team, for instance, isn’t confined to a single product at Bellroy. We provide core services across the business, often in response to objectives set by various teams throughout the year. Other teams within Bellroy, such as our Logistics team, have to be able to respond to changing circumstances like closed shipping lanes with short or no notice and sometimes require our support to do so. The “roaming” team model enables us to address these needs promptly while maintaining our commitment to the Shape Up cycles for larger projects.

Additionally, we’ve incorporated more robust feedback loops within each cycle. Regular check-ins, albeit less frequent than in traditional methodologies, ensure that everyone stays aligned on goals and progress.

During check-ins, we have explicit cues to ensure that we are not focusing solely on technical objectives. We ask ourselves if we are on track to delivering the value that stakeholders are expecting, and that we do not leave things in an unfinished state at the end of the project.

These adaptations have allowed us to maintain the essence of Shape Up – focused work periods, autonomy, and regular shipping – while tweaking it to suit our unique workflow and company culture.

Impact on Productivity and Project Outcomes

The introduction of Shape Up in the Tech Team wasn’t just a procedural change; it brought a fundamental shift in how we approach productivity and overall project value. The flexibility in scope within fixed timelines has resulted in a more dynamic and responsive work environment, allowing us to pivot mid-project if required to deliver value where it matters most.

Perhaps the clearest impact has been on project completion rates. The six-week cycles, with their clear boundaries and goals, have led to a higher rate of on-time project deliveries. This improvement in delivery has cascaded across the organisation, improving our overall operational efficiency.

The cool-down periods have also played a vital role in maintaining a sustainable work pace. These breaks have become a time for reflection and learning, contributing to continuous improvement in our processes and approaches.

In essence, Shape Up has not just reshaped our project timelines; it has reinvigorated our teams and redefined our benchmarks for success.

Future Plans and Improvements

As we look ahead, the journey with Shape Up is far from over. Our plan is to further refine our approach, especially in capacity planning across the business.

We believe that a deeper understanding and application of Shape Up’s principle of fixed time, variable scope can significantly enhance cross-team project planning and resource management.

We’re also exploring ways to integrate more collaborative tools and techniques within the Shape Up framework. Our goal is to enhance communication and alignment among teams, ensuring that every cycle is as effective as possible.

Our experience with Shape Up has been transformative. It has not only improved how we manage projects but also how we view productivity and team dynamics. As we continue to evolve and adapt this methodology, we remain committed to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in project management for our team and the rest of the business.