Book review: Questions are the Answer

In ‘Questions are the Answer’ Hal Gregersen has a written an invaluable, counterintuitive book about the power of questions. “Better questions unlock better answers” is what drives Gregersen’s book; by getting better at questioning, you raise your chances of unlocking better answers. I love the related Elon Musk quote which accentuates Gregersen’s point: “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer.”

 

 

Reframing

In the book, Gregersen homes in on so-called ‘catalytic’ questions; these questions dissolve barriers and break down assumptions. He talks about the power of certain questions to remove one or more of the “givens” in a line of thinking, thus opening up space for inquiry that had been closed off. This is often referred to as “reframing”, which involves taking on the perspective that someone else would take on the situation. As soon as you start reframing, you almost automatically start challenging assumptions. Also, reframing a question helps to engage to audience’s attention or energise a conversation. Gregersen encourages us to pause to reframe and revisit our questions before we formulate new answers. Coming up with the right, breakthrough questions thus becomes a deliberate practice, generating a clear space for inquiry and learning.

Being Wrong

I like how Gregersen stresses an important prerequisite for our ability to ask good questions: one’s willingness to be wrong. “If you want to find a new angle on a problem and ultimately find a breakthrough solution, you must rid yourself of the impulse always to display deep competence” argues Gregersen. This means being comfortable with not having all the answers or letting go of previously held beliefs.

In the book, Jeff Wilke, a top executive at Amazon, mentions two ways in which we can challenge and reset our mental models. Firstly, through “crucible experiences” which are intense episodes of adversity that push us into intense periods of self-reflection. In crucible moments, people are forced to question assumptions they’ve made and get more clarity about what they value. Secondly, the deliberate practice of raising questions to challenge our mental models. As Wilke says “(…) if you seek out things that you don’t know, and you have the courage to be wrong, to be ignorant – to have to ask more questions and maybe be embarrassed socially – then you build a more complete model which serves you better in the course of your life.” It’s particularly the ability to be wrong which may feel counterintuitive and less accepted in today’s society, where “certitude” tends to be valued highly.

Take Time

Finally, Gregersen makes the point that creative questioners take their time to clear their minds and reflect deeply on unresolved issues. They often do this silently and in solitude, to try and come up with the right questions. They can then, for example, come up with the appropriate breakthrough question or figure out how to best cascade their questions, going from a broad objective to a small operational detail. Again, this concept of silent thinking time might feel counterintuitive and contrary to how people typically work. “I can’t just sit there thinking, not doing anything?!” you might be thinking or “If I sat there behind my desk just thinking about questions, my boss and colleagues might be thinking that I’ve downed tools!” The point here is that taking time to reflect on your own thoughts is crucial, and gives you the opportunity to work through unresolved problems and come up with new perspectives.

 

Main learning point: “Questions are the Answer” definitely helped flip my thinking from displaying deep expertise and having all the answers to investing time and effort in devising the right questions. The underlying ability to be vulnerable and accept that we could be wrong feels just as pivotal.

 

Related links for further learning: 

  1. https://halgregersen.com/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SZ3w6et9zQ
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/1672354/how-reframing-a-problem-unlocks-innovation
  4. https://seismic.com/company/blog/malcolm-gladwell-on-the-tranformational-power-of-reframing-at-siriusdecisio/
  5. https://education.asu.edu/sites/default/files/chi2008activeconstinteractive_3.pdf
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98C8bOv_TNE
  7. https://hbr.org/2007/06/how-successful-leaders-think

Book Review: “Insight”

How self aware are you? How well do you know yourself? Do you know how others perceive you? “Insight: How To Succeed By Seeing Yourself Clearly” addresses these questions and more. Its author, Dr. Tasha Eurich, distinguishes between internal – how we perceive ourselves – and external self awareness – how others perceive us. To be truly self aware, Eurich argues, we need to gain both an internal and external perspective. She references a tool developed by psychologist Richard Weissbourd which is called “Zoom In, Zoom Out”. To successfully take others’ perspectives in highly charged situations, Weissbourd advises, we should start by “zooming in” on our perspective first to better understand it. Next, we should “zoom out” and consider the perspective of the other person.

 

 

The importance of perspective taking is the prime learning I took away from reading “Insight”. In the book, Eurich stresses the need for a flexible mindset, where we’re open to multiple truths and perspectives. She talks about developing a “learn-well mindset”; channeling our thinking to focus on learning over performance. Here are some useful ways to help develop such a mindset:

What Not Why

Personally, when I encounter a problem or a situation, I’ll be the first to ask “why” and explore why something is happening or why I’m feeling a certain way. When coaching others, I’ll often focus a conversation on why the other person wants to change. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but there’s a risk that we don’t get to the ‘actionable’ part of our insights or emotions. Eurich encourages us to ask ourselves about the “what”. She explains that “why questions draw us to our limitations, what questions keep us curious.” What can I do? What do you like? These kinds of “what” questions are geared towards personal growth, to seeing our potential.

Daily Check-Ins

Such a simple but powerful tool; spending five minutes at the end of every day reflecting on the following questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What did I learn and how will I be smarter tomorrow?

Reframing

Reframing means that we look at our circumstances, our behaviours, and our relationships from a different angle. I know from experience how easy it can be to be drawn into a single view of a circumstances, and therefore struggling to find a good way to change things. Eurich suggests to instead look at the good and the bad from multiple angles, as a way to help maximise our insights and chances of success.

Solutions Mining

Eurich introduces solutions mining as a way to “think less and understand more”; not only spending time on problems, but also dedicating a good amount of our efforts to exploring different ways of solving a problem. If you want to increase your ability to mine problems for solutions, Eurich recommends a tool called the “Miracle Question”, developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg:

Suppose that one night, while you are asleep, there’s a miracle and the problem that brought you here is solved. However, because you are asleep you don’t know that the miracle has already happened … Think for a moment … how’s life going to be different now? Describe it in detail. What’s the first thing you’ll notice as you wake up in the morning?

The Miracle Question can provide some valuable insights into potential solutions to a problem and forces to think more broadly about our aspirations. It can act as a great question for when you’re coaching someone or trying to get yourself or someone else to open up a whole new level of insight.

 

 

In the book, Eurich also offers valuable pointers on how to create awareness at a team level; “if being individually self-aware means who you are and how others see you, a self-aware team commits to that same understanding at a collective level.” She shares the Five Cornerstones of Collective Insight for teams to regularly assess and address:

  1. Objectives – What are we trying to achieve?
  2. Progress – How are we doing? How are we progressing towards our objectives?
  3. Process – The processes we’re employing to achieve our objectives.
  4. Assumptions – Our assumptions about the business and our environment. Do they (still) hold true?
  5. Individual Contributions – What impact is each team member having on the team’s performance?

Eurich interviewed Allan Mullaly, the former CEO of Ford and Boeing, who utilised a regular “Business Process Review” meeting to make sure that teams would share their collective insight. These meetings would evolve around these key questions:

  • Do we all know the plan?
  • Do we all know the status of the plan?
  • Are we all aware of the challenges the company is facing?

Mullaly is clear about what leadership isn not: control the every move of your employees. Instead, he explains in “Insight”, that  leaders should help connect their employees with the bigger picture, give them the right tools and provide them with the space to make mistakes whilst still holding them accountable.

 

 

Finally, Eurich shares useful tips on how to give and receive feedback, highlighting the need for us to find “loving critics”. Loving critics are those people who will be honest with us whilst still having our best interest at heart. In contrast, “unloving critics” – the type of people who criticise everything we do – or “uncritical lovers” – who would never criticise us – aren’t very helpful if you’re looking for feedback which can help you grow as an individual or as a team.

 

Main learning point: Reading “Insight” made me realise how awareness is a like a muscle that you have train regularly if not daily. In the book, Eurich elaborates both on the internal and external aspects of self-awareness, and how to continuously nourish both elements.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/tasha_eurich_increase_your_self_awareness_with_one_simple_fix?language=en
  2. https://www.successpodcast.com/show-notes/2020/5/20/you-arent-actually-self-aware-with-tasha-eurich
  3. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/leading-in-the-21st-century-an-interview-with-fords-alan-mulally
  4. https://harvard.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_e35whN7tkXtvlHv
  5. http://assets.cce.umn.edu/cardsort/values/

 

 

Book review: “Why Are We Yelling?”

 

Buster Benson, entrepreneur and former product leader, has written “Why Are We Yelling?”. In this book, he covers ‘the art of productive disagreement’. Most of us are weary of disagreement, so Benson’s claim that disagreement can be productive is intriguing. The book begins with some of the common misconceptions with respect to disagreement:

  • Arguments are bad – They aren’t bad, but they can’t be unproductive. We aren’t taught how to argue productively.
  • Arguments change minds – We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behaviour.
  • Arguments end – Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.

Benson then flips these misconceptions to make the case for the “gift of disagreement”:

  • Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad – They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
  • Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds – They are about bringing minds together.
  • Truth 3: Arguments don’t end – They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.

I thought it was refreshing to read how Benson starts dissecting product disagreement by zooming in on anxiety. He explains how anxiety sparks “when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way” and offers ways to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement (see Fig. 1 below).

There are number of internal voices that come to life in the case of a disagreement. Benson cites the three main ones and explains how these tend to be culturally engrained:

  • The voice of power – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Take it or leave it” or “My way or the highway”. The voice of power isn the ultimate conflict-resolution strategy, because you can’t argue with sheer force. Benson states that this what power does – it forcibly closes down arguments and ends conflict in your favour, which is an undeniable evolutionary advantage.
  • The voice of reason – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Why?” or “That doesn’t add up”. The voice of reason is all about using reasons to shut down a debate. Benson argues that the voice of reason works best in situations where you have disagreements with people who share respect for the same higher authority or are part of the same group or organisation that your reasons draw from.
  • The voice of avoidance – This is the internal voice which tells you things such as “I would prefer not to” or “Leave me out of it”. Benson describes how “conflict avoiders have identified flaws in the voices of power and reason and so have chosen to address conflicts by simply refusing to participate in them in the first place.”

Core to the book is the fourth voice that Benson introduces: the voice of possibility. The voice of possibility seeks to make conflict productive. This voice resonates in questions like:

  • What are we missing?
  • What else is possible?
  • What else can we do with what we have?
  • Who else can we bring into the conversation to give us a new perspective?

Benson makes the point that the voice of possibility encourages us very explicitly not to do what the other three voices – power, reason and avoidance – have made habitual in us, which is to find a way to uproot and kill the conflict. We need to, Benson argues, develop ‘honest bias’. He also offers a set of useful guidelines with respect to product disagreement:

  1. Watch how anxiety sparks – These sparks are signposts to our own internal map of dangerous ideas. Notice the difference between big and small sparks.
  2. Talk to your internal voices – Most of us have internal voices that map to the voices of power, reason, and avoidance. Get to know yours so you can recognise their suggestions as merely suggestions, not orders.
  3. Develop honest bias – There is no cure for bias, but we can develop an honest relationship to our own bias with self-reflection, frequent requests for thoughtful feedback, and a willingness to address feedback directly, however it comes.
  4. Speak for yourself – Don’t speculate about others, especially groups that you don’t belong to. Instead, seek out a respectable member of any group you might otherwise speculate about and invite them to your table to speak for themselves. Listen generously.
  5. Ask questions that invite surprising answers – Think of big wide-open questions that create space for divergent perspectives to be heard. Measure the quality of your questions by the honesty and eloquence that they draw out from the person answering them.
  6. Build arguments together – Structure arguments into evidence of the problems and opportunities (to support conflicts of head), diverse perspectives within the argument (to support conflicts of heart),and proposals to address the problems and opportunities ((to support conflicts of hand).
  7. Cultivate neutral spaces – A neutral space is inviting; it opens up big questions and allows arguments to strengthen and the fruit of disagreement to grow. It creates wiggle room for perspectives to shift and expand without punishment or shame. It reminds us that it’s okay to be uncertain indefinitely and it’s okay to act while uncertain.
  8. Accept reality, then participate in it – We can’t change reality from the realm of wishful thinking and wilful blindness. We can’t hide from dangerous ideas. We’re right in the mess with all of it, getting our heads, hearts, and hands dirty. The only way out is through.

Main learning point: ‘Why We Are Yelling?’ successfully demystifies the common notion that disagreement needs to be painful and unproductive. In this book, Buster Benson describes the rationale behind this notion – through three, culturally engrained voices – and introduces a powerful new voice; the voice of possibility.

 

Fig. 1 – How to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement – Taken from: Buster Benson – Why Are We Yelling?, pp. 54 – 55:

  1. When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
  2. Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
  3. Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
  4. Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?

My product management toolkit (40): managing time

“Time Management” comes up in lot in conversations that I have with other product managers. The concern is about their ability to be a good product person, managing a product end-to-end while being short on time and fighting lots of different, and often conflicting requests. We’re busy* all the time but are we busy working on the right things? Are we able to focus on the things that really matter? How much control do we have over our own calendars? If not, are there ways to regain some of that control?

 

 

Since moving to the UK over 14 years ago I must have come across at least ten different ways of saying that you’re busy, almost like a badge of honour 🙂 From being chock a block to being slammed to up to your eyeballs, it definitely took me some time getting used to these expressions 🙂

Especially given the fluid nature of the product management role and the associated risk of being pulled in lots of different directions, it’s important to consider how we spend our time and what we should say ‘no’ to. I will share a number of tools and techniques that you might find useful when prioritising and managing your time, based both on my own experience and the great work by Jake Knapp (Make Time) and Greg McKeown (Essentialism):

  1. We’ve got a choice (1) – Sometimes I can’t help scratching my head when we talk about empowering people. In my mind, people are empowered when they enter the workplace, but collectively we inadvertently end up taking some of that power away, e.g. by entering meetings in people’s diaries, setting recurring tasks, etc. Understandably, we don’t always feel empowered or comfortable saying no to things, instead saying things like “I have to” or “They want me to”. In the great book “Essentialism” Greg McKeown reminds us that we have the power of choice and that we can say “I choose to”.
  2. We’ve got a choice (2) – The ability to choose can be applied to tough tradeoff decisions on how to best spend your time. Instead of asking the question “How can I do both?” we should wonder “Which problem do I want?” or “What can I go big on?” We thus put ourselves in a position where we decide about the tradeoffs that we’re prepared to make. Ultimately this comes down to establishing what really matters and why.
  3. Identify what really matters – McKeown suggests that a ‘non-essentialist’ says yes to almost every request or opportunity, based on very broad criteria. In contrast, an ‘essentialist’ will say yes to only the top 10% of opportunities, using explicit criteria to (de) prioritise opportunities. I like how McKeown tries to keep things simple by suggesting that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” You can also use Suzy Welch’s 10/10/10 test to decide whether something is worth prioritising or not: How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?
  4. Saying “no” – Saying “no” is a valid option when presenting with conflicting requests, and there are a number of ways to say no graciously but firmly (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. Reflect on how you currently spend your time – Particularly if you’re feeling chronically overworked or that you’re not getting anything done, it’s worth keeping track of how you’re spending your time. Over the course, you could track how much time you spend in meetings, checking and responding to email or Slack messages, reading a book, doing exercise, doing admin tasks, etc. This exercise isn’t about accounting for every minute of the day but about building up a more global picture of how you spend your time. For instance, if you find that 80% of your time is spent, it could be worth reflecting on the different meetings you attend. How helpful are they? Why (not)? What are the opportunity cost attached to attending these meetings? Reflecting on such findings will help you in making tweaks to your schedule or ways of working.
  6. Carve out time (1) – Naturally, it’s hard to cater for unexpected events or things taking longer than planned if your schedule is fully packed with meetings or other activities. Keown recommends building in some buffer time – daily or weekly – to deal with unexpected events or to start preparing early for future priorities or commitments. Generally, blocking out time is extremely important if you want to retain a sense of proactivity and doing those things that really matter to you. For example, no one is going to schedule in regular time slots for you to study competitors or to look at product performance data, and you might well have to block out dedicated time to ensure this happens on a regular basis.
  7. Carve out time (2) – Similar to how you’d carve out time to do specific things, it can help to block out time to respond to email instead of constantly being distracted by new messages coming in. I find that if you only go through email twice a day, e.g. from 9-10am and 4-5pm – you’ll capture most of the important stuff in your inbox while still being responsive. To make the most of the dedicated that you carve out, I suggest minimising distractions e.g. by temporarily turning off email, Slack or text notifications. I know it involves using technology, but apps like Forest can be a great help if you want to create focus time.
  8. Pick and plan your highlights (1) – In “Make Time” Jake Knapp distinguishes four steps to making sure we focus on the right things, repeating these steps every day: highlight, laser, reflect and energise (see Fig. 2 below). Knapp stresses the importance of thinking upfront what you’d like to be the highlight of the end of each day, making sure that you spend time on things that matter to you instead of losing the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities.
  9. Pick and plan your highlights (2) – Knapp suggests three different ways to pick your highlight: urgency, satisfaction and joy (see Fig. 3 below). I have seen other people apply a similar approach, whereby they select a few big ‘rocks’ that they really want or need to do on a given day, complemented by a small number of  ‘pebbles’. Similarly, when I plan my day, I typically have a small number of items above the line and a certain number of items below the line, trying to make sure I do the above the line items first.
  10. Apply made up constraints – Even if a deadline or another type of constraint hasn’t been set, you can apply one to make sure you achieve your goals. For instance, if you’re preparing a work presentation and are worried about spending days on the largest PowerPoint deck the world has ever seen, you can set yourself a maximum number of slides that you can’t go over. Naturally, the trick is to then stick to the deadline or restriction that you’ve made up, but I know from experience that applying these constraints goes a long way in being productive.

Main learning point: I know full well that there are plenty of great books, blog posts, etc. on the topic of time management, and the approach that works for one person might not work for someone else. Writing this post, however, made me reflect on the key thing about managing your time: proactivity. Time management is all about being more on the front foot with respect to adding value to your life, your job, relationships, etc. and therefore a topic worthy revisiting on a regular basis.

 

Fig. 1 – Ways of saying “no” graciously but firmly – Adapted from: Greg McKeown, Essentialism

  • Pause – Pause for a moment when a request comes to you. You can take a moment to count to three when you’re being asked in person or not responding immediately via email. Doing this gives you the time necessary to decide whether you can or want to honour the request.
  • The soft “no” (or the “no but” or “not now”) – Instead of a blunt no, you could say something something along the lines of “I can’t do it now, but can I do it by the end of this week instead, as I need to finish a few other things first. Would that work?” or “No, but let me check with my team whether someone else can do it.”
  • Let me check my calendar and get back to you – To avoid committing to something and only afterwards realising that there’s a diary or priority conflict, I will often give myself time to check my calendar and priorities before confirming.
  • Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritise?” – No one has said that prioritisation is a pure solo effort. By indicating that something will have to give if you say yes, you can have a constructive conversation about your priorities and an opportunity to further explain why you prioritised these things in the first place.
  • Say it with humour –  Having lots on or saying no doesn’t mean that the world is falling apart 🙂 Sometimes, I will joke about needing to get creative to make things happen or doing some time-travelling to indicate that I can’t satisfy the request (now).
  • Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to X” – Not only does the phrase “You are welcome to X. I am willing to do Y” provide clarity about what the other person can expect, you’re also being explicit about what you can’t or aren’t willing to do.

 

Fig. 2 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time

  • Highlight – Choose a single activity to prioritise and protect in your calendar.
  • Laser – Beat distraction to make time for your Highlight.
  • Energise – Use the body to recharge the brain.
  • Reflect – Take a few notes before you go to bed, adjust and improve your system based on your reflections.

 

Fig. 3 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time

  • Urgency – What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
  • Satisfaction – At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?
  • Joy – When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://jakeknapp.com/make-time
  2. https://svpg.com/coaching-managing-time/
  3. https://gregmckeown.com/book/
  4. https://medium.com/@christopherjones_12942/aligning-a-product-managers-effort-with-their-priorities-3af576f2dfa1
  5. https://www.oprah.com/spirit/suzy-welchs-rule-of-10-10-10-decision-making-guide/all
  6. https://www.businessinsider.com/time-management-productivity-rocks-pebbles-sand-2019-2

Book Review: “Shape Up” by Ryan Singer

Basecamp is a project management and communication platform, widely known for its innovative software development practices and novel ways of working. Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Strategy, recently captured Basecamp’s approach in Shape Up, which is freely available online and as a PDF. The product development process at Basecamp consists of three distinct stages: shaping, betting and building.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

Basecamp typically work in six-week cycles, building and releasing new features within that timeframe. The work is shaped first before it’s given to a team to work on. A small senior group works in parallel to the cycle teams. They define the key elements of a solution before considering a project ready to bet on. Interestingly, shaping is less about traditional estimation of development work, and much more about appetite. Instead of asking how much time it will take to do some work, people at Basecamp will consider how much time they want to spend on a specific piece of work; how much is this idea worth?

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

 

Shaping

When shaping a solution, the aim is to strike the right balance between ‘too vague’ and ‘too detailed’. Wireframes are deemed too concrete, whilst words are often too abstract. The reason why this balance is important is that the scope of a project needs to be flexible enough for the team to come up with appropriate design solutions whilst not running the risk of growing out of control due to a lack of boundaries.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.1-chapter-02

These are the main steps to shaping:

  1. Set boundaries – First figure out how much time the raw idea is worth and how to define the problem. This provides the basic boundaries to shape into.
  2. Rough out the elements – Then comes the creative work of sketching a solution. At Basecamp, they do this at a higher level of abstraction compared to wireframes in order to move fast and explore a wide enough range of possibilities. The output of this step is an idea that solves the problem within the appetite but without all the fine details worked out.
  3. Address risks and rabbit holes – Once there is the feeling that a solution has been found, the goal is to find holes or unanswered questions that could trip up a team. The solution gets amended accordingly, tricky things removed from it, or specified details at tricky spots to ensure that a team doesn’t waste time or gets stuck.
  4. Write the pitch –  When the solution is shaped enough to bet on, things are packaged up formally in a pitch. The pitch summarises the problem, constraints, solution, rabbit holes, and limitations. The pitch then goes to Basecamp’s betting table for consideration.

Ryan Singer writes about how Basecamp uses the technique of breadboarding, a concept borrowed from electrical engineering. When breadboarding, three things are drawn:

  1. Places – These are things you can navigate to, like screens, dialogs, or menus that pop up.
  2. Affordances – These are things the user can act on, like buttons and fields. Interface copy is considered to be an affordance too, as reading it is an act that gives the user information for subsequent actions.
  3. Connection lines – These show how the affordances take the user from place to place.

I like how words are used instead of pictures, focusing on the solution’s components and the connections between them and allowing you to figure out an idea. Importantly, this technique allows you to judge if the sequence of actions serves the use case you’re trying to solve.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

If the idea being considered is a visual one. In this case, breadboarding would be insufficient because the visual representation is the fundamental problem. At Basecamp, wireframes wouldn’t be created in this circumstance, but fat marker sketches would be created instead. A fat marker sketch is a sketch made with such broad strokes that adding detail is difficult or impossible.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

Bets, Not Backlogs

Singer explains how at Basecamp backlogs are viewed as time wasters; the time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organising ‘tickets’, working on a list of items that might or might not get done. By contrast, Singer talks about holding a betting table before each six-week cycle. At the betting table, stakeholders evaluate pitches from the last six weeks, or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/2.2-chapter-08

 

The betting table at Basecamp consists of the CEO, the CTO, a senior developer and product strategist (Ryan Singer himself). The main reason why Basecamp use bets instead of plans, is the difference in expectations set when talking about bets:

  • Bets have a payout – Solutions are deliberately shaped into six-week projects so that there’s meaningful finished at the end. The pitch defines a specific payout that makes the bet worth making.
  • Bets are commitments – If a bet is made for six weeks, then the relevant people will get six weeks to work exclusively on that thing for six weeks, without distractions.
  • Bets have a cap on the downside – When a bet is made to work on something specific for six weeks, the most that you can lose is six weeks and thus avoiding a situation where you’re spending multiples of the original six-week commitment on a solution.

Build your way uphill

                     Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

This section of “Shape Up” starts with a great and very true point about the unpredictability of development work: “This goes back to the notion of imagined versus discovered tasks. In our naive notion of a list that’s planned up-front, somebody populates it with items that are gradually checked off. In real life, issues are discovered by getting involved in the problem. That means to-do lists actually grow as the team makes progress.” Also, numeric estimates of pieces of work often don’t take into account the level of uncertainty involved in different tasks. Basecamp have recognised this and instead use the metaphor of the hill, which concentrates on what’s unknown and what’s solved:

 

                      Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

The idea behind this hill is that anyone in the company can see at a glance where things are at. If a task been ‘uphill’ for while, why is that? What unknown is holding it up? Or perhaps the item on ten hill consists of a number of smaller items. The hill helps to see what is stuck and what has been done, or getting close to being completed.

Conclusion: I found “Shape Up” a very helpful and insightful book. Not only does it provide a great insight into Basecamp’s approach to developing products, it also made me reflect on my own ways of working – and the teams that I’m part of. Highly recommend reading “Shape Up” if you’re interested in learning about alternative ways of developing software products or collaborating during the product development lifecycle.