A founder came to me with questions about his team's results adopting Shape Up. Some projects were knockouts. They got exactly what they wanted done, when they wanted it done. But other projects dragged on, stuck at the last yard line. What was going on?
I asked the usual questions about over-shaping and under-shaping, but they weren't helping. This guy knew his stuff. He wasn't throwing a fuzzy PRD over the wall, or a surface-level drawing that ignored the technical underpinnings.
There had to be some structural difference between the knock-outs and drag-outs. So I changed tack and asked him about the teams doing the work.
It turns out he wasn't shaping for one stable group. Some projects went to an internal team, while others went to a big-name contract agency. The knock-out successes were all with the contractors. Was it because they were more skilled or better organized? Definitely not. His internal people were excellent. He hired the contractors to deal with a growth spurt — there was more work than he could handle.
Talking about the cost of the contractors sparked an insight. He said:
The contractors were so expensive ... it actually sharpened my thinking way, way more. I was forced to really hone those pitches. Versus "Oh, we'll figure that out somewhere, we can handle it internally."
"You were talking about the criticality of solving things up front ... I did solve much more when there was an extremely expensive cycle."
He clearly saw the cost of not shaping in the contractor case, because they were so expensive. There was more at risk. There wasn't going to be a second chance, or a "later", without another big lump of expense.
This was a big a-ha moment. While internal teams may not feel as expensive as big-name agencies, that time isn't free. The more we see the true cost of building, the more the cost of not shaping becomes clear.
P.S. Some engineering managers might cringe when they hear about "solving more" in the shaping phase. Better shaping does not mean taking the hard problems away from our best people. More on that in a coming post.
If you want to more clearly see what shaping and spiking look like in the real world, check out the Shaping in Real Life course. Our next cohort runs January 8-23, and there are just four seats left.