Illustration by Nelson Taruc

How I Use Shape Up for Marketing

I’m currently on my fourth Shape Up cycle as head of marketing at the company I work for.

Shape Up, recently made public by Ryan Singer at Basecamp, is a framework to help companies ship work that matters. While Shape Up primarily focuses on digital product creation, I quickly saw how it could apply to marketing.

The rest of this article assumes you’re familiar with Shape Up concepts.

Here’s what I learned after completing three cycles.

Demand v. Supply

I want to share “why” I got interested in Shape Up in the first place.

Prior to becoming head of marketing, I did extensive research on the problem and solution space that marketers live in today. After listening and talking to marketers across a variety of companies, I had two “aha” moments.

First, at most companies, marketing is a supply-side operation.

Marketing teams crank out tons of content in the hope it will be consumed by their target audience and drive behavior change. It’s a process that generates muda (a term I’ve carefully chosen), because digital marketing today is a conversion funnel game.

Pump and dump content on your audience, then pray some portion “converts” to the next phase of your marketing scheme. This is how the consumer-side SaaS game is played today.

My inbox is a graveyard of emails from marketers who flood with crud.

But what if marketing was driven by demand thinking?

That question opened up many interesting concepts. A demand-side operation requires a much different mindset. If you treat marketing as a product rather than a process, why not use a product-focused framework to manage it?

The second “aha” moment: traditional marketing isn’t very nimble—especially in execution.

I have yet to find a marketing agency that structures its activity via sprints or cycles, separates the shaping from doing, or executes campaigns by delivering incremental value over time.

So Why Shape Up?

Because sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.

My research had helped me build a marketing framework for delivering incremental value built around some novel concepts way too boring to share here. Originally, I planned to squish that bespoke framework into traditional two-week “agile” sprints.

And then, Shape Up became public. I thought, why not try it out? It would be a good experiment, and I had a back-up framework in case it failed.

Lessons Learned

I’ll try to be succinct:

Lesson 1: You MUST Protect Your Delivery Team’s Time!

When starting Shape Up at a company, it’s easy for a delivery team to get sucked into other projects. This will demolish your team’s ability to deliver on time. I actually had to freeze our first cycle for two weeks to deal with an emergency side-project request.

Lesson 2: Shaping Requires a Why, Not a How

Shape Up works well for me because I have a really tight betting table, and the shaping focuses on a “marketing target” we create for the six-week cycle, based on our understanding of our potential customers at that point in time.

Without going too much into the weeds, that target gives us shared understanding of why we are targeting a specific customer need. The shaping table doesn’t dictate how to do it. That’s up to the delivery team to figure out.

Lesson 3: Six Weeks is Goldilocks

Initially, I thought six weeks was way too slow. Most “agile” methods work in one-week or two-week sprints. Isn’t that cadence obvious?

Wow, was I wrong.

First off, nothing stops you from delivering incremental marketing value before the end of six weeks. You can make marketing content live at any time.

With six weeks, you have time to breathe, pace and prioritize delivery. But it’s short enough to pivot quickly to changing customer needs.

Lesson 4: The ‘Great Idea! I’m Listening’ Backlog

One of the core benefits of Shape Up is that a backlog is not necessary. (Side note: I told some of my Agile-Certified pals this and they literally thought I had gone insane.)

The politics of marketing, at least in my neck of the woods, dictate that I memorialize all the wonderful supply-side ideas important to others. If these ideas don’t make it past the initial betting table, I do keep track of them on a list that’s less of a backlog and more of a purgatory.

Frankly, the intent is to manage the perception that these supply-side ideas are not going ignored. The reality: Most of these ideas lose luster over time and never make it back to the betting table.

Each new cycle never brings in ideas from the previous cycle unless they are absolutely critical to achieving the marketing target for the next cycle.

All that said, I never keep a backlog of my own activities. This is a refreshing freedom and saves so much energy.

Lesson 5: Jobs to be Done Seems Like a Prerequisite

Using Shape Up will be much harder if you don’t understand the demand side of your target market. I feel Jobs To Be Done is a requirement for this research—but it has to be done right. By right, I mean specifically the approach developed by Clayton Christensen, and operationalized by Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek. (In my initial research, I cringed hearing how other marketing teams used JTBD in very wrong and laughable ways … but that’s a topic for another article.)

Lesson 6: Celebrate the Ending

If your marketing Shape Up cycle was successful, you delivered new capabilities to potential customers. It’s tempting to jump into the next cycle, but part of your process should include clear internal communication of what was accomplished and how that benefits potential customers. At the very least, it puts everyone on the same page of your marketing strategy.

Sprint 4 and Beyond

Although Shape Up is at its core a product creation framework, it has some attractive qualities that make it an ideal framework for managing marketing as well.

On Medium, there are a smattering of reviews and analyses of Shape Up, but very few actually come from someone who has actually “ridden the cycle” multiple times—and no one using it for marketing, certainly! So I’m happy to share and network with others using Shape Up for marketing.

Principal Designer at Lextech. Focus. Boost signal, kill noise. Solve the first problem. Embrace uncertainty.

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