Shape Up by Basecamp

Shape Up is a specific methodology published by Basecamp about how to organize product development in an efficient manner, specifically when the organization grows. It also applies dual-track agile as described in ??? even though in a very specific way.

Six-Week Cycles

Instead of shorter sprint cycles as with Scrum, Shape Up applies a six-week cadence with the key steps being:


Shaping essentially means selecting a relevant problem and sketching the solution at a medium level of abstraction. This exercise is executed by a dedicated team, including PM and designers, on a fairly abstract level — wireframes are too specific already, but fat marker style is OK. Shaping also addresses boundaries, defines what is out-of-scope, and marks particular risks and rabbit holes. The outcome is a pitch later used in decision-making.


Betting means presenting the pitches prepared before to management or a product board for decision-making. There is no prioritized backlog or such. There are just a few ideas that the teams might potentially work on next, all else is discarded assuming that relevant ideas will come back — so no need to manage them explicitly. In a dedicated meeting, stakeholders decide what the teams should be working on and, thus, bet on it. It’s much like planning but calling it bets it becomes more clear that there is a commitment to invest and an expected outcome, also a certain risk.


Building, so actually implementing the project with a strict time-box of six weeks. Literally, either a project is finished within 6 weeks or is being killed. After hand-over, implementation is done by cross-functional teams so that value can be delivered incrementally, called slices by Basecamp. Work is organized in specific scope maps and also distinguished as to whether it is about finding out what to do or just execution (see below).

Interesting Elements

Even when the entire Shape Up process is highly specific to Basecamp, there are some elements that are useful also in other contexts:

Fat Marker Sketches

Just plain words are too abstract. Even low-fidelity wireframes are too specific already and might prescribe a solution to the designer. Basecamp suggests fat market sketches as depicted to the right. So something that could easily be done with a pen on an iPad, gives an impression of the intended behavior but still leaves enough room for proper UX design.

Fat Marker Sketch
Source: Ryan Singer | Shape Up


Instead of asking engineering for their estimation, complexity, story points, or whatsoever, the appetite is looking at an idea from an investment perspective: 

How much are we willing to invest in that idea?

Is it the full six-week cycle? Half of it? So the appetite is applied as a constraint.

Work is Like a Hill

Shape Up considers each work item across two phases:

  • Firstly, going uphill, figuring out what to do, so with a certain level of uncertainty
  • Secondly, downhill, execution, just getting it done
Work is Like a Hill
Source: Ryan Singer | Shape Up

This is an interesting concept to understand uncertainty and whether, for example, adding more resources will actually help or do more harm to a project.

Further Reading

Shape Up by Basecamp

Shape Up

Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters.

Ryan Singer | Basecamp