Can Shape Up be the right Scrum alternative for you?

Shape Up method — Scrum alternative or not?

There are several great agile frameworks to choose from, each with its own unique set of principles and practices. Some might be more suitable for your current or future situation, while others might be less fitting. In this article, we will compare and contrast Scrum, a typical go-to and well-known agile framework, with a more recent method called Shape Up.

Both approaches have a strong focus on delivering value and adapting to change, but they differ in their specific approach to achieving these goals. By understanding the key similarities and differences between these two methodologies, we can better evaluate which one might be the best fit for our team or company.

Photo by Agnieszka Cymbalak on Unsplash

What is Shape Up and where it comes from?

Shape Up is a product development methodology developed by Basecamp (software company), well known for online project management tool of the same name. It is focused on a iterative process for developing and launching new products or features, especially for web and mobile. The method emphasizes the importance of defining clear goals and constraints up front in order to create a focused and efficient development process. It also underlines the value of experimentation and prototyping in order to test and validate ideas before committing significant resources to them. Overall, the goal of Shape Up is to help teams make better decisions about what to work on, and how to work on it, in order to deliver high-impact, valuable products to customers.

Most probably, you or anyone else will be comparing Shape Up to the Scrum Guide, a go-to resource for implementing and fine-tuning Scrum. Its approach and style is very different. Rather than providing a readable book with many examples, you will get a condensed and practical manual. Simplistic and minimalistic, where every word and sentence matter, thus requires careful reading. Its tone is also more humble in providing a path walked and fine-tuned by hundreds if not thousands of people, teams and organizations.

Scrum (as described in the Scrum Guide) is stripped of all metaphors and provides only a bare-bones, vanilla description of who does what and why. This will, of course, make it easier to apply to a wide range of situations. However, you may be left to figure out more advanced concepts on your own, with the help of a coach or through training. Unfortunately, this means you may have to do additional work to understand and apply Scrum in your specific context fully.

Shape Up in a nutshell

The Shape Up method involves the following phases of building a product:

  1. Idea phase: During this phase, team members propose and discuss new project ideas. These ideas are then prioritized and a rough outline of the work is created.
  2. Shape phase: During the shape phase, a team works to define the scope of a project and create a high-level plan for completing it. This includes creating user stories, identifying risks and uncertainties, and estimating the amount of time and resources needed to complete the project.
  3. Build phase: During the build phase, the team focuses on executing the plan developed during the shape phase. This involves completing the work needed to deliver the project, including design, development, testing, and deployment.
  4. Bet phase: The bet phase is a review process that takes place before the start of a new Build phase, or better said at the end of each Shape phase. The team reflects on what was learned during the Shaping and discusses any necessary adjustments to the plan for the next Build phase. Most importantly, a green light is given to start a new Build phase.

Like Scrum, Shape Up aims to solve problems such as predictability, risk mitigation, and continuous learning. However, what makes Shape Up valuable to study and use are the specific good practices it provides right where they are needed in the product delivery flow and the specific challenges it addresses, such as lack of transparency, poor communication, unclear requirements, and lack of focus.

Your next best Scrum alternative, if …

Transitioning from Scrum to Shape Up should not be taken lightly. The cost of switching, in terms of both hours and lost productivity, might be too high to justify the change. However, don’t reject the idea outright. Shape Up might be a very good start or even an alternative to Scrum.

  • You have not started with the Scrum — If you are just starting to evaluate your options for delivery frameworks, you might want to consider Shape Up. It is easy to get started with, as the book includes a guide on how to begin, and many parts of product development are simpler in Shape Up than in Scrum. Rest assured that you will be taught good practices. Switching to Scrum may come later and won’t be as much of a shock if you have already been introduced to good practices through Shape Up.
  • Your company can fully commit to Shape Up — It’s important to consider whether Shape Up is a good fit for your company, taking into account factors such as company size, scaling plans, and level of commitment required from all members of the product development team. If your company has less than 60–100 people and is not planning to scale significantly in the future, and if you have the support of the C-level executives, Shape Up may be a good option to consider. However, it’s essential that everyone working with products in the company fully adopts and is committed to using Shape Up, rather than just partially adopting it.
  • You develop products but so far you have not followed a specific framework — It’s not necessarily a requirement for your company to be in chaos in order to consider using Shape Up. Rather, it may be that you haven’t established a set of clear rules and practices, or that you need to improve upon your current ones. In this case, Shape Up can help by providing a detailed guide on what to do and where to start, which can help you immediately improve your product development process.

Don’t leave Scrum, if …

Here are some cases when I would not recommend to leave Scrum in favor for Shape Up:

  • Scrum didn’t worked for you — If you have worked with Scrum and the results were not satisfactory, there may be a number of reasons for this. It’s important to take a good look at the underlying problems and try to understand where they are coming from before considering switching to a different framework such as Shape Up. It’s possible that the issues you are facing are not specific to Scrum and will not be automatically solved by switching to a different framework. In order to determine whether Shape Up is a good fit for your team or organization, it’s important to identify the root causes of the problems you are experiencing and ensure that Shape Up is specifically designed to address those issues. Only then should you consider making the switch.
  • Your products are not mobile or web apps — It’s important to consider whether the specific risks that Shape Up is designed to address are relevant to your product or not. If your product does not require tackling these types of risks, then you may not be able to fully utilize the potential benefits of Shape Up. In this case, Scrum may still be a good fit for your team or organization, as it can provide benefits and address risks regardless of the type of product you are working on. However, if the risks that Shape Up addresses are relevant to your product, then it may be a good fit for your team and allow you to fully utilize its potential benefits.
  • Your company’s culture is more engineering then design/UX driven — It’s possible that a methodology that places a strong emphasis on product design above all other principles may not be the first choice for engineers. They may feel that they have plenty of freedom and importance, but not enough decision-making power. If your company culture or product is technology-oriented and engineering-driven, it may be a better fit to stick with Scrum. However, it’s important to consider the specific needs and goals of your team or organization, as well as the nature of your product and the challenges you are facing, when evaluating which agile framework is the best fit for you.
If we tried to eliminate every bug, we’d never be done. You can’t ship anything new if you have to fix the whole world first. — Shape Up

Conclusions (for agile enthusiasts and decision makers)

I highly recommend reading Shape Up. It is a valuable investment of your time that will provide a comprehensive methodology with practical examples from real-world experiences. This book offers useful insights and strategies that can enhance any existing process or framework, and these can be immediately implemented for maximum benefit.

If you expect a silver bullet solution to your problems (whether you use Scrum or any other framework), you will set yourself up for disappointment. No framework can solve all problems. Instead, familiarize yourself with Shape Up’s ideas and practices to set yourself on the right path and discover what works for you, what will not work, and how to tackle underlying problems that may arise on your journey to satisfied customers.


Can Shape Up be the right Scrum alternative for you? was originally published in ableneo People on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.