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Week 13, 2021 — Issue #145

How Basecamp Works: Shaping, Betting, and Building

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Each week I share three ideas for better ways of working. This week, those ideas come courtesy of Ryan Singer at Basecamp.

I recently finished ShapeUp — How to Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters, a new book that explains how Basecamp — one of the world’s most famous SaaS companies — actually works.

These are my top-3 takeaways:

1. Shaping

In contrast to most Agile practices that use short 2-week sprints, the Basecamp team has settled on a 6-week cycle; long enough to be meaningful yet short enough to see the finish line. Like most Agile practices, Basecamp does however abide by the Fixed Time, Variable Scope constraint, meaning that work is shaped to fit within the 6-week cycle, and they use the term ‘appetite’ to denote the scope that a 2-person team (typically a designer and a developer) can deliver within that time.

2. Betting

Unlike Agile practices that typically stuff each 2-week sprint full of detailed user stories, Basecamp devotes each 6-week cycle to one or more pitches. A pitch is a short written document explaining the problem to be solved, the appetite with which to do so, and a proposed solution. Note the emphasis on short; good pitches make clear what the sought-after outcomes are, but they refrain from providing details as to how that outcome should be achieved. That is left to the team.

3. Building

Speaking of which: unlike Agile practices that assume user stories are complete before they’re added into the sprint, Basecamp allows its teams to discover scope as they go along. “You need to walk the territory before you can draw the map,” writes author Ryan Singer, adding that every piece of work has two discrete phases: There’s the uphill phase in which the team figures out how to deliver on the pitch. And then there’s the downhill phase when they buckle in for execution.

Like previous books from Basecamp, ShapeUp is concise, well-written, and highly opinionated. It’s free to read online. And it provides an interesting alternative to Agile practices like Scrum.

That being said. While ShapeUp and Agile are different, I feel the practices have more in common than not. Fundamentally, it’s all about small self-organized teams working in iterations to deliver work with emergent scope. The details are different, obviously. And in some cases, those details are quite consequential. But overall, I do not think a dyed-in-the-wool Agile practitioner would feel out-of-place with ShapeUp. And that’s a good thing.

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: Make it matter.



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