Shape Up

Shape Up is a set of techniques for driving product development; it strikes the right balance of strategic direction and solution flexibility.

Product development is a careful process that you can’t enter without a structured approach. You need a system for efficient and iterative planning, delivery, and feedback. This is important in order to reduce risk, improve outcomes, and create direction at every stage of the process. One such framework is Shape Up.

This article will discuss what the Shape Up method is and why you should use it, alongside its key concepts and whether Shape Up is agile.

What is Shape Up?

This framework is a process for product development teams to shape and build meaningful products. By using specific language and techniques to address uncertainties at each development stage, teams can achieve their goal of delivering a good product to end-users.

Shape Up is designed for organizations that are looking to build great products. It’s about making changes based on what you learn and discovering opportunities as you go to actively adapt your approach to creating better products over time.

The process comes from Basecamp’s book, Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. The book is popular with product development teams as it covers a lot of the common challenges that all software companies face. It takes you from the principles of shaping to building your product.

How to “Shape Up” a Project

The Shape Up process comes in a cycle of three actions: shape, bet, build. The shaping and betting actions run concurrent to the building action for maximum efficiency.


There are four stages to shaping: setting boundaries, shaping rough elements, addressing uncertainties, and creating the pitch. Boundaries are set by defining how much time a team is willing to spend on a project. No cycle should last longer than six weeks.

Once a timeframe is set, a team begins roughing out the elements to its solution. Then the team identifies any potential risks or obstacles and how to work around them. Finally, the team builds all these factors into the pitch.

The shaping action generally lasts four weeks.


The start of each project will see several pitches. To decide on a final pitch, Shape Up uses betting. Team members will bet on their chosen pitches for the next cycle. The number of bets a pitch has—and the relative seniority of the members pitching—will determine the selection.

The betting action generally lasts two weeks.


When you “build,” you go through three phases: getting a single piece done, mapping the scopes, and outlining a hill chart.

Getting one piece done at a time helps a team build momentum for the whole project. A team will work simultaneously on the front and back end elements of a piece to finish it. All the while, the team will map the scope of each piece.

As you map, you will find the progress shapes itself into a hill. Working on a project and its elements symbolizes climbing up the hill. Once most problems are solved, and the rest is execution, the project begins going downhill to its completion.

The building action happens alongside shaping and betting and lasts four weeks with a two-week cooldown.

Why Use the Shape Up Method?

Using this method allows team leaders to “shape” a project, so the team moves in the right direction. But that shape also needs to stay abstract enough that the team has the flexibility to develop its own solutions.

Shape Up also helps teams deliver a product on time since it runs on a six-week work cycle. To stick within a tight deadline like this, your team has to work efficiently and promptly to deliver the product as per the schedule. 

Key Concepts of Shape Up

The Shape Up method features several key concepts to keep team members efficient. Some of those concepts include:

  • Six-week cycle: By cycling in set periods, the framework provides both a timeframe for all the work involved and a firm deadline to encourage efficient time usage.
  • Work shaping: A small senior group defines a project before handing it off to another team to build. By shaping a project beforehand, the senior team provides direction but still gives teams room to build.
  • Shared responsibility: A team has more freedom and flexibility to define actions, adjust scopes, and do work. The senior members, therefore, have no need to micromanage their team.
  • Risk reduction: One of the core aspects of this method is mitigating the risk of not shipping a product on time.

Shape Up and Agility

Shape Up is not necessarily an agile framework, but it is compatible with agility. The Shape Up method also limits a project by duration rather than scope, although it works in “cycles” instead of “sprints.” The teams involved are also cross-functional and multi-functional, although the agile teams are larger.

Both Shape Up, and Agile require teams to be self-organizing with little micromanagement. However, Agile processes focus on customer satisfaction, while Shape Up focuses on mitigating risks.

Shape Up embraces empirical process control over following set rules; flexibility is built-in so you can change course when new information surfaces. Agile teams should be empowered with self-organization, so Shape Up provides an environment for this to happen.