Ryan Singer, designer and developer at Basecamp, recently released a web-only book entitled Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. I’ve been working my way through it, and one passage about responding to new product improvements stood out:
Responding to raw ideas
Our default response to any idea that comes up should be: “Interesting. Maybe some day.” In other words, a very soft “no” that leaves all our options open. We don’t put it in a backlog. We give it space so we can learn whether it’s really important and what it might entail.
It’s too early to say “yes” or “no” on first contact. Even if we’re excited about it, we shouldn’t make a commitment that we don’t yet understand. We need to do work on the idea before it’s shaped enough to bet resources on. If we always say “yes” to incoming requests we’ll end up with a giant pile of work that only grows.
It’s important to keep a cool manner and a bit of a poker face. We don’t want to shut down an idea that we don’t understand. New information might come in tomorrow that makes us see it differently. On the other hand, showing too much enthusiasm right away can set expectations that this thing is going to happen. We may not be able to commit to it once we’ve put it into context with everything else we want to do.
This is very well articulated. As I mentioned in my Programming Debt Paid post, we had that backlog:
It became clear that this programming “debt” needed to be paid off for us to continue to grow smoothly. And for me personally, it has weighed on me that there was this backlog of unfinished projects. It made it harder for me to feel comfortable taking time off knowing that there were certain situations that the team wasn’t well equipped to handle on their own.
For years, we just had a massive “programming plan” Google Doc that we’d add any good idea to (after ensuring it was feasible and after determining a rough time estimate). But there were huge downsides to this: we always had a huge backlog, and we’d sometimes succumb to bumping the latest and greatest to the top of the list, just because we were excited about it in the moment.
As they mention in the book, important ideas always come back:
Really important ideas will come back to you. When’s the last time you forgot a really great, inspiring idea? And if it’s not that interesting—maybe a bug that customers are running into from time to time—it’ll come back to your attention when a customer complains again or a new customer hits it. If you hear it once and never again, maybe it wasn’t really a problem. And if you keep hearing about it, you’ll be motivated to shape a solution and pitch betting time on it in the next cycle.
Since catching up, I’m taking a much more mindful approach. The techniques described in Shape Up are helpful because they’ve built this very successful project planning framework that we can emulate. I do get a lot of interesting product requests from my partners, our employees, and our customers, as well as ones that I think of myself. The “soft no” approach is perfect. As is letting something get suggested a few times before acting on it.
These are really difficult skills to master, especially when you’re the project manager and developer (and owner) like I am. So when a book like Shape Up comes along I’m grateful for the opportunity to see how a successful company does things.