How Basecamp’s ‘shape up’ approach helped our relationship with stakeholders

We’ve recently started using Basecamp’s ‘shape up’ approach to move UNLCKD, our loyalty scheme, forward. The approach recommends working in 6-week cycles because, as Basecamp say, that’s “long enough to build something meaningful… and short enough that everyone can feel the deadline looming from the start, so they use the time wisely.”

This post is about how working in this way has helped us (the digital team), communicate clearly and concisely with our stakeholders to improve their understanding of the product and the way we work. This has built trust and has meant we’ve had the space to focus more deeply and make progress.

A tricky project to inherit

We’ve posted before about the history of UNLCKD but TL;DR: the piece of work came from a business need before the digital team was in place. There was no discovery, and knowledge and dependencies were distributed across multiple people, teams, systems and suppliers. Inheriting the project was tricky for the digital team because picking something up at this stage and modifying it to meet user needs as well as business needs is far from ideal. It couldn’t be a pure agile delivery job. We needed a way of working that allowed us to deliver and improve UNLCKD’s value while managing a relationship with stakeholders who are not familiar with agile ways of working and who may be bought in to the product we are tasked with changing.

The big question: how could we pull each team and every stakeholder in the same direction? The answer: we borrowed elements from ‘shape up’ to create a delivery approach suited to our situation.

How the ‘shape up’ approach has helped us make progress

We discovered the real gold lay in how this way of working brought stakeholders along with us and kept them super engaged throughout.

Here’s why.

1. Smarter communication reduces the load on stakeholders and gives us more ‘deep thinking’ time

The approach helped us think hard about communication. As a result we’ve been very strategic about how and what we’ve communicated with stakeholders and at what point. The first change we made was to switch to asynchronous communication – this is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. So, emails lend themselves well to asynchronous comms but a flurry of Slack messages do not.

We believe that async communication has transformed our delivery approach and our reputation with stakeholders because it has allowed them to get on with their day-to-day jobs and has given them the peace of mind that we are getting on with ours. How do they know we are? Because we’re updating them regularly (without overloading them) and they can read about our progress when it suits them.

Our investment in longer form writing has meant we get the maximum shared understanding in the minimum time. For anyone wanting more detail, more often, we also spun up a wiki to record more day-to-day detail and decision making, and shared this with everyone, along with a glossary for any technical phrases. We also ask for a single hour of stakeholders’ time at the end of each 6-week cycle for a show and tell and Q&A session.

We’ve reduced the cognitive load for stakeholders – and for us – by making things predictable. Routine is comforting for humans so it makes sense that stakeholders tend to feel safer if they know how and when they’ll receive updates. Sharing what’s important at set intervals has provided more space for us to concentrate and focus more deeply. We’ve suddenly gained 6 weeks to work without interruption. After each 6-week cycle, we have a 2 week ‘cool down’ period. Those 10 days have allowed us to fix tech debt so it doesn’t accumulate too wildly, reflect on what we’ve done and the way we’ve done it during the cycle and plan and prioritise very deliberately, without huge time pressure, what we’ll include in the next scope of work.

2. Setting expectations helps build trust

At the beginning of our 6-week cycles, we agree on the scope of work along with success measures and an owner. We name the cycle (always a bird) so it is memorable and is a thing in its own right.

Then we email the scope of work to the people who need to know. We include a TL:DR summary and a ‘Luxurious Detail Version’ which is more in depth – this way busy people can get what they need as a headline and read the details when they have time. We tell them roughly when to expect demos and we set a date for the end of cycle show and tell and Q&A session.

We have a 30-minute max check-in with stakeholders each week. We send them (plus the wider business) a newsletter update every 2 weeks (again, with a TL:DR summary as well as a more in depth version) with honest commentary on small failures, links to online work and our even more detailed wiki. This is all leading to the show and tell and Q&A session at the end of the cycle.

This is our third cycle and it feels as though everyone – and I mean stakeholders too – has settled into this routine. We all know what to expect. There’s something powerful about laying out the way we will work over a short period. It shows we are in control, organised and reduces (the appearance of!) chaos. Setting realistic expectations – and updating them if needs be – is important. This way there are no big shocks because we all get into the habit of knowing what to expect, at what point.

Trust and better relationships stem from here.

3. Working in the open invites more constructive feedback

The show and tell and Q&A session comes at the end of each cycle. We work as a team on a 45-minute presentation with the emphasis on show not tell. This forms part of the 1 hour we ask stakeholders to commit to every 6 weeks.

We show what we’ve done, we talk through what hasn’t gone to plan, we work hard to explain why. We agree to be honest and this gives stakeholders the opportunity to meet our honesty with theirs. We follow up with written notes and an online survey in case feeding back in front of others doesn’t feel right. We take note of any concerns, we record the session, update the wiki, and we go again.

That 1 hour video call is important – especially while we’re all working remotely. Seeing each other, putting faces and human voices to the work being presented or critiqued is a necessary (occasional) connection. It helps create empathy between people who may sometimes think of themselves as having opposing priorities. Having that engagement beyond a name on an email changes your experience of them and how understanding you are of each other.

Thumbs up all round 👍

Here's a photo of the team, taken at one of our remote meet-ups. remote team photo

The feedback has been very positive on our progress and also on the way we’re working.

Our key stakeholder said that they ‘wished other teams worked this way’ and that we ‘smashed it with a great presentation’ after every single cycle. That’s a great outcome and we’ll continue working in this way. We’re at week number 2 on cycle Bullfinch. Next up: cycle Flamingo.

Andy Tabberer Delivery manager