What’s the Shape Up Methodology and How to Use it To Build Meaningful Products


Are you wondering what Shape Up methodology is? Would you like to learn how product managers should use it and when?

If yes, we’ve got you covered!

The article explains what Shape Up is and explores how it compares to other frameworks and tools. We also look at how product development teams can apply it in their work.

Intrigued? Let’s dive in!


  • Shape Up helps product teams manage risk and uncertainty to develop and build quality products through clearly defined focused projects.
  • Basecamp developed Shape Up as an antidote to problems that hindered the timely completion of their projects.
  • The method helps teams develop and ship products on schedule thanks to a combination of clearly defined objectives and the autonomy to pursue innovative solutions.
  • Scrum is a comprehensive Agile software development framework while Shape Up is a set of tools that product teams can use selectively.
  • Unlike Scrum, Shape Up doesn’t use backlogs. Also, the development team contributes to the shaping stage in a limited way.
  • Shape Up iterations take 6 weeks and a 2-week cool-down window following the Build stage to allow teams to address any outstanding issues.
  • Continuous Discovery and Shape Up have very different purposes. Continuous Discovery focuses on the ongoing collection of feedback to discover user problems and inform product development, while Shape Up is about delivering the solution to a problem.
  • The Shape Up process consists of three stages:
  1. During the Shaping stage, the team decides on their appetite i.e. how much time they are ready to spend on developing a solution to the problem. They also work out the parameters for the solution, assess risks, and write the pitch.
  2. At the Betting stage, the team members place bets on each of the pitched solutions and the best one progresses to the Building stage.
  3. During the Building stage, teams break down work into smaller tasks and classify them into scopes, which are groups of interdependent tasks. They use the Hill Chart to track their progress.
  • The Shape and Build cycles happen in parallel. While one team is building the solution, another one is shaping solutions for the next Build cycle.

What is the Shape Up methodology?

Shape Up is an approach to product development through clearly defined focused projects.

Shape up provides tools for risk and uncertainty management at different stages of the product development process to help teams shape and build quality products without unnecessary delays.

What’s the origin of the Shape Up methodology?

The Shape Up methodology was developed by Basecamp, the popular project management and collaboration tool.

The model was based on Basecamp’s internal product development process. Ryan Singer introduced it to the public in his 2019 book ‘Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters’.

In short, Basecamp realized that to ship relevant products on schedule, teams needed to define focused projects. This entailed setting clear parameters and deadlines.

What are the benefits of using the Shape Up method?

The Shape Up methodology offers a few key benefits.

To start with, it gives product development teams the tools necessary to define problems in detail before the work on solutions starts.

This provides clarity to the team on what exactly needs to be done and increases the chances of creating relevant products and timely shipping.

However, it’s important to note the parameters outlined at the onset of the project don’t constrain the work of the team. They are specific enough for the team to know the direction, but also general enough to give them the freedom to work out the details, like the design.

The clear definition of direction at the beginning of the project removes the need for close management. As a result, managers have more time to focus on shaping the products.

So in a nutshell, Shape Up gives teams clearly defined objectives and more autonomy and freedom to come up with innovative solutions to the problems.

Shape Up vs Scrum

Both Shape Up and Scrum are time-boxed approaches that rely on clear iteration objectives on the one hand and flexibility on how to achieve them on the other.

However, there are a few fundamental differences between the two.

To start with, the key difference is that Shape Up is not really a development framework but rather a set of tools that you can incorporate into your own process.

Scrum is a comprehensive framework that covers every stage of product development. If you want to do Scrum, you can’t pick and choose which rituals or artifacts you use. If you do, it’s not Scrum anymore.

One of the key artifacts of Scrum is the backlog which contains all the tasks for the team. Shape Up rejects the idea of backlogs. They believe that if an idea is important enough it will keep coming back so there’s no need to record it anywhere.

Who defines the objectives and divides the work is another important difference. In Scrum, it is the self-organizing project team who carries out backlog refinement and breaks down the items into tasks.

In Shape-Up, it is not the responsibility of the building team. Product leaders, like product managers or product owners, do it on their own or with trusted coworkers and often behind closed doors.

Finally, the Shape Up cycles are six weeks in duration, while Scrum sprints are normally two to four weeks long. However, this difference is a bit superficial because in practice the Shape Up cycles, like the Building stage, consist of mini-iterations and increments.

There is also a two-week cool-down at the end of each Build cycle when teams polish the work and deal with any outstanding issues. This overlaps with the Bet stage, which is also 2-weeks long.

Shape Up Cycles. Source: Basecamp.
Shape Up Cycles. Source: Basecamp.

Shape Up vs Continuous Discovery

Shape-Up and Continuous Discovery are two very different concepts.

Continuous Discovery is all about the ongoing assessment of user needs to enable incremental innovation. As the customers’ needs keep changing, so must the product that we are building.

Continuous Discovery Framework.

To help with product discovery, Teresa Torres came up with a tool called Opportunity Solution Tree, which helps the development team make sure there is alignment between problems, solutions, and the product strategy.

Opportunity Solution Tree
Opportunity Solution Tree

Shape Up is about the execution of ideas and building solutions to problems that have been identified previously.

There are elements of discovery present at different stages of the Shape Up process though but they focus on the details of the solution.

For example, during the Shaping stage, product leaders rough out the elements, while during the Building stage, the development teams map the scopes.

The customer is not involved in the process.

How does Shape Up Method work

Now that we know the general principles behind Shape Up, it’s time to explore how it works in more detail. Essentially, there are three main stages in Shape Up:

  • Shaping
  • Betting
  • Building
Shaping, Betting and Building are the 3 stages of the Shape Up process. Source: Basecamp.
Shaping, Betting and Building are the 3 stages of the Shape Up process. Source: Basecamp.

Shape Up Method: Work Shaping

Shaping consists of four phases:

  • setting boundaries
  • roughing out the elements
  • addressing risks
  • writing the pitch

Setting boundaries

While setting the boundaries, the question that the team wants to answer is ‘how much time are we ready to spend to solve the problem?’ This is called in Shape Up appetite.

This is different from the traditional approach to project scoping, where teams try to estimate how long a certain task is going to take and what resources it is going to require.

In Shape Up, the time is limited – teams have a maximum of 6 weeks to ship work while the resources are constrained by the size of the team, just like in Scrum.

Appetite is the reflection of the organization’s business and product priorities. If a feature is considered important enough, there is more appetite for it. If not, there is less appetite and the likelihood of the feature being developed is smaller.

In practice, setting the boundaries means also prioritizing the problems they are facing.

Roughing out the elements

Roughing out the elements is about developing solutions.

The aim of this phase is to describe the solutions in enough detail to remove any ambiguity and room for misunderstanding as to what is needed while giving the teams enough freedom to work out the best way of solving the problem.

A few Shape Up techniques are available here, like breadboarding or fat marker sketching. Both of them involve presenting how the solution is going to work without paying excessive attention to its aesthetics or details. These will come later.

Addressing Risks

One of the main advantages of using Shape Up is the ability to reduce risks involved in project delivery and prevent scope creep.

How does it happen?

Let’s start with rabbit holes. These are all the risks that could derail the project and result in delays. Team members try to identify all such risks and find ways to mitigate them.

No-gos are all the things that are not in scope. These could be all the features and or feature characteristics that are not essential for the solution to be effective. They may be really tempting to develop, but like rabbit holes, they can result in delays and excessive costs.

By identifying rabbit holes and no-gos, Shape Up development teams are able to reduce the risk of late work shipments.

For the process to be effective, it needs to involve team members with different areas of expertise. Each of them will bring their own unique perspective on the problem and may be able to point out risks that others don’t.

Writing the pitch

The pitch is a document that outlines the structure of the project and the details of the solution.

It covers the problem you are trying to solve, the appetite, the solution, the rabbit holes, and the no-gos.

Writing the pitch is the final phase of the Shaping stage. The quality of the pitch depends on the quality of the work that went into defining the boundaries, roughing out the elements of the solution, and preparing the risk management plan.

Shape Up Method: Betting

Betting is about choosing the solution to build in the next cycle.

After the shaping process is over, there is more than just one solution available. Shape Up teams use a betting table to pick the one. This means literally sitting around a table and betting on a solution that each of the team members believes to have the most potential.

The number of bets and the seniority of the people betting determine which pitch succeeds.

Using this technique is a bit more challenging with large teams. However, there are tools that allow team members to evaluate the pitches and place their bets even when they are not physically in the same room.

Shape Up Method: Building

During the building stage, there are 3 steps:

  • getting one piece done
  • mapping the scopes
  • forming the hill chart

Getting one piece done

Getting the first piece done is what gets the project going. And by done, we mean a complete product. So if you are working on a feature, it will be both its front and back ends that you need to create. Otherwise, the piece is not fully functional and you can’t see if it works as desired.

Mapping the Scopes

Scopes are groups of related tasks.

Mapping the scopes involves breaking the work needed to deliver the solution down into individual tasks and then grouping them into categories.

It is a gradual process.

As teams start building the solution, they identify the jobs that need to be done to complete the work. Initially, it’s just a list, but as work progresses, they understand the interdependencies between tasks better and start grouping them together.

Forming the hill chart

The hill chart is a tool Shape Up teams use to illustrate and track their progress.

The upward part of the curve shows all the work needed to map the scopes. These are all the unknowns that the team faces initially. As they keep working on the solution, their understanding of its complexity grows.

The Hill Chart is an important Shape Up tool
The Hill Chart is an important Shape Up tool. Source: Basecamp.

The top of the curve indicates the moment when all the ambiguity has been resolved. The team understands what they have to do and the interdependencies between the individual tasks. All they have to do is to complete them.

The downward part of the curve depicts the execution of the tasks. With time, the team completes all the tasks and the project ends. The work is finally ready to ship.

Mapping the Scopes on the Hill Chart in Shape Up
Mapping the Scopes on the Hill Chart in Shape Up. Source: Basecamp.

Two tracks

As we mentioned before, Shape Up organizes the work in six-week iterations. However, the Shaping and Building cycles run in parallel.

The first six-week cycle is to shape the product. Once it’s over, the next six-week cycle starts and the team builds the product. While the development team is building the solution, another Shape cycle is running to produce more pitches to work on.


Shape Up is a toolset that helps teams cope with the challenges that often plague projects like the lack of clearly defined parameters or specific deadlines.

Product managers have the freedom to select the Shape Up tools that they believe will help their teams develop and build quality products.

If you would like to learn how Userpilot can help your team identify user problems and shape products that delight them, get the demo!

The post What’s the Shape Up Methodology and How to Use it To Build Meaningful Products appeared first on Thoughts about Product Adoption, User Onboarding and Good UX | Userpilot Blog.

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