Review of “Shape Up” book

I enjoy reading books over blog posts and tweets because they provide more context and they can also go deeper. I recently finished reading “Shape Up” written by Ryan Singer. The book is available for free on Base Camp website and it definitely worth a read. Here is my take on it:

What is Shaping Up and why does it matter?

The book argues there is a Goldilocks state for defining requirement in a way that defined work is neither too vague nor too concrete. The idea is to provide the team (1-2 developers and a designer) enough context about the project’s goal and clear layout of the scope and constraints but allow them to define the nitty-gritty details themselves. I strongly agree with this approach as I made both above mistakes.

Having too vague of a requirement (“This page should be easy to use”) leaves the team guessing on what the PM really wants. They either constantly interrupt their work for further clarification or they may build based on their own assumption. Either way the end result is either something that took much longer that it needed to or worse an application that is totally different from the PM expectation.

The other extreme where the requirement has all the details (“Here is the exact designs for registration page”) brings its own risks. The biggest one is to create an illusion that PM knows all the answers and the team has no say in figuring out the direction of the product. The team job is only to follow strict set of instructions to get to the final product. If user experience or the flow doesn’t make sense then it’s on Product who should have should have figured it out sooner. This approach takes away the joy of collaboration, leaves the PM anxious about guessing everything upfront and the team powerless in coming up with solution.

What I learned & loved about Shape Up

The first part of the book talks about the characteristics of a shaped up work and how one should go about creating such work. The first thing is that the work should be completed and shipped within 6 weeks. I learned there are four main steps to follow: 1) Setting Boundaries which focuses on defining the problem 2) Rough out the elements is about sketching a solution without specifying too many details 3) Address risks and rabbit holes finds unanswered questions in the proposed solution to de-risk it and finally 4) writing the pitch is simply creating a document where all the above is laid out so that the team can understand them.

What could have been better

In summary Shape Up specially it’s first part is a must read for every product managers whereas other parts are less in control of the PM. For example, the book talks about the concept of circuit breaker (abandoning a project which has run through its 6-weeks cycle but it’s not completed) but that truly depends on leadership willingness to pull the plug and enforce that deadlines are firm. I haven’t seen that happening much in my experience and it’s not something that PMs can enforce by themselves.

Another issue I haves is that the book comes us with some new catch phrases like “six week cycle”, “cool down period” and “betting table” but I’m vary of coming up with new hypes and new names. These terms tend to take a life of their own as the spread to other companies and turn into something quite different. I’ve seen this with concept like MVP, sprint, JTBD and my concern is that they will have the same fate.

Overall though it’s one of the best free books out there that really teaches you something 🙂

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