First it’s helpful to step back and put the question in a wider frame.
We can distinguish two different kinds of work:
Demand-side work is determining what potential customers are trying to do, what they value, what matters to them.
Supply-side work is making things: designing and building projects, etc.
The practices in Shape Up are all supply side: given some idea of what we want to do, how do we turn that into a project that we can successfully finish and ship within a period of time that feels good to us.
Part of the reason I wrote Shape Up was I noticed that I couldn’t actually talk with other teams about the demand side. They were too bottlenecked by supply-side problems. Many product leaders simply have no time to think strategically because they are in too many meetings, answering too many questions, and constantly dealing with minutia.
For example, if you work in two week sprints, and you have a grooming meeting between every sprint, you are going to constantly be busy just reviewing work and figuring out what to do next. You never get to step back and work on the macro.
Delegating projects at a larger scale (eg 6 weeks) and giving the teams latitude within the guard rails of the shaped work to make their own decisions frees up leadership to think and do the demand-side work.
When you’re at a point where you do actually have the time to do that, then we can talk a bit about the demand side. This could be a whole’nother book but I’ll sketch out some key points here.
1. At what time scale does the demand-side direction get set?
Figuring out what to do next informs both what we shape and what we bet on. Therefore it needs to be somehow outside and above the cadence of normal cycle work. At Basecamp we have no formal process or fixed time-scale for this. But you can approximate it by imagining a quarterly or semi-annual conversation at the leadership level. (I think of the length of the cycle (5-6 weeks) as the harmonic of the frequency of this higher-level strategy setting.)
For a rough picture, you can think of the people having this conversation as the betting table plus anybody who contributes meaningful research or inputs to their decision making. At Basecamp it’s like this. I’ve seen other companies doing Shape Up where there are executives above the betting table who set the strategic direction.
2. How does demand-side work connect to shaping and cycles?
The direction set at this level is more abstract than projects. It might be about correcting a worrying metric (“we need more inbound traffic to the marketing site”). Or it might be about pursuing a broad idea (“improve to-dos in Basecamp”) Or it might be tied to a big idea for a new product (“spike some core features of Project X so we can decide if there’s something there.”)
This direction comes down in two forms. First, it influences which projects get shaped. Second, it influences which projects get bet on and turned into cycle work.
Basically, think of the high-level direction as a filter. It doesn’t tell you what to do, it gives you a rough sense of which projects will get accepted based on what the stakeholders care about.
For the ones on the receiving end of this strategic direction — whoever is shaping and pitching — it can be more or less formal. If we’ve talked at a high level about theming future projects around to-dos, then I might put all my shaping time toward projects that fit that. Some companies use OKRs. Others focus on certain jobs to be done and use those as a filter. More on these approaches below in point 3.
Other times there simply is no clear, explicit direction from above. At the end of the day, owners are the owners. They aren’t beholden to any framework or policy for how to make decisions. They can do what they want. So from a level below looking up, choosing what to shape and pitch can be like deciding what clothes to wear today: you check the weather and look in your closet. It’s important to acknowledge this informal type of direction. Shapers should attune themselves to the “weather” of what people above them are talking about and caring about on an ongoing basis.
3. What is the demand-side work and how does it become strategy?
Roughly speaking I know of three approaches. We reach for them at different times according to what is going on in the company (according to the “weather”).
First, there are times when someone at an executive level knows what they want and they dictate it. Whether it accurately maps to customers doesn’t matter. They’re the owners and it’s what they think is the right thing to do. We can call this strategy by fiat. It could come from a eureka in the shower, a conversation with a customer, or who knows where. To be very technical, we would say the demand is actually the stakeholder’s demand, not the customer’s. But they may be a proxy for the customer sometimes.
Second, there are times when the executive level doesn’t have a clear idea of what to do. This creates an openness for strategy led by research. Someone can use a demand-side research method to learn something meaningful or compelling about what customers are trying to do, where they are struggling, workarounds they are performing, types of nonconsumption, etc. In this case, it’s important to recall that questions create space in the mind for answers. If leadership isn’t asking a question, research won’t matter to them. (Researchers take note.) I recommend the jobs to be done interview technique as a starting point for demand-side research. Competing Against Luck is a good intro the framework and The ReWired Group are the model practitioners based on my experience. I personally do customer interviews whenever I’m in the dark about what’s important from their perspective. This can lead to clarifying a specific project idea or it can spark off entirely new ideas for strategic directions.
Finally, there’s scratching your own itch. This is how we set the strategy for the first cut of all of our products at Basecamp. In this case you live the demand side so you don’t need to research it. You identify some pain or struggling moment in a situation you know yourself. When something hurts, you don’t have to have a complicated prioritizing path. You fix what hurts. So life is strategically simpler in this situation.
I hope this gives a summary view of how to think about strategy and how the demand and supply sides fit together. We come up with broad ideas of what is important either by fiat, by research, or by scratching our own itch. Those set direction at a time scale a harmonic above cycles: quarterly or longer. This direction then works downward as a filter on what we shape and bet on for that time period.