Product Management in Notion: How to Shape Up Without Basecamp
Shape Up is a product development approach by Basecamp (ex-37signals) that helps teams ship faster without getting bogged down in overly complex Agile methodologies.
It’s based on the concept of “fixed time, variable scope” bets, and we found it invaluable at Pona to avoid black-hole projects that have derailed our development cycle in the past.
Shape Up was designed for Basecamp, the OG product management SaaS. Unfortunately, Basecamp rested on their laurels far too long and fell behind other products of its kind. (See “Hey Jason! Basecamp was a leader; now it can’t keep up. What happened?”)
Below, I’ll describe how we implemented Shape Up using Notion, a delightful note-taking software packed with power-user features, wrapped in a clean and intuitive UI.
Why Shape Up in Notion
Notion is a note-taking software with a kitchen sink included. You can use it as a simple wiki, but also extend with interactive media, or even databases, Kanban boards and more.
Because of Notion’s simplicity and flexibility, we found it easy to get new and old team members on board, and to keep every part of our business in one place: knowledge base, investor CRM, style guides, product roadmap and everything in between.
Notion is built around pages, but what makes it more powerful than, say, Dropbox Paper are dozens of native and third-party blocks you can embed alongside your text.
The blocks you’ll find most useful as a PM are databases — collections of pages complemented with structured metadata. The best part about these is you can create separate views that show the same underlying data filtered down or in a different format.
Notion is very customizable, so you can make your remote team feel at home, in a similar to way to how plants, paraphernalia and keepsakes can make an office or a cubicle feel “yours.” (And yes, dark mode is just a click away!)
To see everything you can do and organize in Notion, be it at your company or in your personal life, be sure to check out the Notion Template Gallery.
Implementing Shape Up in Notion
This guide assumes you’ve already read about Shape Up. I won’t go over the material, so read the e-book first (it’s free), then return here to learn how to get shaping in Notion.
At Pona, we have a separate root page for everything product-related, and within it, a Shape Up page called Bets.
At the top of the page, we include the current cycle’s start and end dates.
Our main view is a Kanban board, divided into Pitches, This cycle and two hidden columns: Completed and Rejected.
As a small startup, we don’t have separate teams shaping and working on the product. Rather, anyone on the team can submit new pitches and shape them the best they can, asking for support when needed.
To make the process simple and effective, we do a short presentation on the Shape Up method to everyone who joins our team, and we have a template ready to guide them through the process.
Each new Pitch has the Author property set to the person who created it, and Status set to Pitches. Team members are welcome to change this to No Status, thus effectively hiding the Pitch until they’re ready to share it with others.
The author then selects the appropriate Team (we started using Shape Up for product but have since expanded to marketing and all other business initiatives).
Finally, they select an Appetite for their Pitch. We found the need to go more nuanced than Basecamp, and we have not two, but three batch sizes to choose from: small (1–2 weeks), medium (4 weeks) and big (6 weeks).
The rest of the template guides the author toward a Pitch that clearly describes a customer-facing (or internal) problem, a well-researched solution, potential rabbit holes and out-of-bounds.
In addition to the four sections above, described in Shape Up, we added one more of our own, “What qualifies as success?” We first added it to keep track of growth experiments, but we found it equally valuable in the product team.
Another section we’ve considered adding explicitly, but for the time being cover under Problem, is Why now — why is the next cycle the right time for this Pitch? What’s great about Notion is how easy it is to include additional media in your Pitch. For example, we encourage all product team Pitches to include a quick sketch of the feature or process:
We’re also big fans of embedding Whimsical mind maps, GitHub gists and Loom screen recordings of concepts that are difficult to describe in text.
At the end of each cycle, our core team goes over all Pitches, and selects Bets for next cycle, based on wider business priorities and resources available at the time.
We do this in our main Kanban view, but you can also create a separate gallery view, focused entirely on new Pitches (sensitive details blurred out below).
As a remote team, we run our Betting Table over a web call. At the end of the meeting, we move selected Pitches to the This cycle column, and everything else is marked as Rejected.
Finally, we make an announcement in Slack, listing what we’re going to work on for our next cycle and the reasoning behind each Bet.
Once we start working on a particular Bet, we add a to-do list at the top of the page and start assigning tasks to individual team members as we go along.
Small-size Bets often remain uncategorized. For larger Bets, we progressively categorize them under scopes that can be worked on and finished independently of each other.
For many product tasks, one of the first steps is a wireframe or full design. We include those as an image, directly under the task, followed by a link to an Adobe XD prototype.
If you’re using InVision, you can also embed your project directly as an interactive block.
We tend to keep all conversations in Slack, but depending on your project, you may find it better to keep all discussions within each individual Bet. This can be done at the page level:
Or as comments on individual blocks and tasks:
I hope these ideas help you get started with Shape Up, an invaluable set of ideas crippled by a product management tool that has fallen behind the times.
If you like the methodology, but you did not fall in love with Notion, you can also check out this guide on how to implement a similar system in Monday, a more project management–focused SaaS.