Inside Maze: How Shape Up fosters a culture of team ownership 

Avi Zuber

Oct 28, 2020

A few months ago, the product team at Maze implemented Shape Up as the leading software development approach at Maze. In this article, Avi Zuber, Full-stack developer at Maze, looks at how Shape Up fosters a culture of ownership within teams.

Like most software companies, we went through the journey of finding the right product management methodology that worked for our product team and met our needs as a growing start-up. 

A few months back, our Lead Product Manager, Arjen Harris, led the implementation of Basecamp’s Shape Up at Maze. Aside from proving to be an effective solution that enables us to consistently deliver value to our customers, we also discovered a side benefit to this way of working: team ownership.

Before I get into the details of team ownership and why it’s particularly relevant for developers and designers, let’s quickly explore how Shape Up came to be at Maze and why we found this approach to work well for our team.

Early days at Maze: the drawbacks of linear product development

Prior to implementing Shape Up, the product team at Maze had been using the Scrum framework for delivering new features regularly. We scheduled features to be developed within a two-week sprint, held daily remote standups, and a retrospective at the end of the sprint. 

However, our product development methodology consisted of a combination of agile and waterfall approaches to building the product. In linear fashion, ideas were born, pushed to design, and then handed off to the engineering team. 

“The best software is built through a cross-functional collaboration between different teams and specialists.” 

This approach to product development worked for a while when Maze was just getting started and the product team was small, which meant there were enough opportunities for real-time collaboration. However, as the team grew, it became clear that that methodology was limiting our ability to manage projects and deliver features on a two-week schedule. 

There were a few problems with that approach, some of which are: 

  1. In a linear framework, when a designer hands off to a developer, the design is considered complete. Questions inevitably arise when the developer starts working on the design, even with a kick-off meeting before beginning the project to “explain” the design. This causes time-consuming back-and-forths during the sprint and applies pressure on the two-week deadline. 
  2. Another downside to this linear approach is that team members are siloed into hyper-specific functions within the company, giving the faulty impression that designers are “pixel pushers,” and developers are “code monkeys.” The reality is that the best software is built through a cross-functional collaboration between different teams and specialists. A siloed approach has significant detriments to the success of an organization.
  3. Lastly, in a linear framework, decisions are made in a top-down approach, so it’s easy to lose track of who is responsible for delivering the finished product and accountable for decision-making throughout the process. When everyone is assigned specific tasks within the project but no one has full responsibility, you risk a breakdown in communication and accountability.

Ultimately, this linear approach to development only works when teams are small and able to communicate cross-functionally on a regular basis. 

So, when Arjen joined Maze some months back, he led the change from our previous two-week sprint framework to Shape Up. It was a timely decision as the product team at Maze started growing a lot. The change allowed us to continue working effectively as a team and deliver value consistently. But more than that, it brought about another meaningful advantage, that of team ownership.

The added benefit of Shape Up: Team ownership 

Unlike the linear approach of going from stakeholder to design to development, with Shape Up, the designers and developers work hand-in-hand to come up with the best solution to complete the project and achieve goals. 

Ideas are collected from the entire organization and customer base and later vetted and shaped over the course of the two weeks leading up to the start of the development cycle. The shaping process allows stakeholders to define the key elements of a solution at an abstract level, setting the constraints and outline of a solution while still leaving enough space for squads to work on the details themselves. 

Once there’s a list of ideas chosen, also known as bets, they are assigned to squads when the build cycle begins. At Maze, squads consist of stakeholders such as marketers, product managers and executives, a designer, and two engineers. 

“Shape Up creates team members who take ownership of their work and collaborate with one another to deliver a final product.”

Squads work on their project over a six-week build cycle. Over these weeks, they are in constant communication and decision-making, always with the end-goal in sight. 

This approach to working allows squad members to fully own the solution from beginning to end. Teams have full responsibility for the project: they get to define the scope of the solution, work out the constraints, and manage their own tasks. Shape Up creates team members who take ownership of their work and collaborate with one another to deliver a final product. 

Once a team completes a new feature, they get to appreciate it from the inside out, having been involved in every step of the process. To demonstrate how team ownership is achieved with Shape Up, I’ll share a recent example.

A few weeks back, we decided to add a Slack integration to our platform. The premise was straightforward: a Slack integration would give our customers a way to get notifications when new test results came in. 

If we used the old linear method, assumptions about building and implementing a Slack integration would have been made by a stakeholder. Then, the project would have been handed over to design, and afterward, the design would be delivered to development. You know the drill. With Shape Up, we experienced:

  • Cross-functional collaboration within teams. For every project, teams consisting of both designers and developers work on the project from start to finish. This means everyone contributes in equal part to the finished product. For the Maze integration with Slack, designers and developers worked hand in hand to come up with our own assumptions and questions, test them, determine tech and design limitations, and properly scope the project. We asked questions such as “Where are integrations managed?” and “What other integrations could we offer to our users, and how does that impact the Slack integration?” and more. 
  • Shared responsibility. Because teams are fully responsible for delivering a project, all members are involved throughout the six-week cycle in equal measure. This also means that we schedule frequent feedback meetings with stakeholders during the build cycle and don’t wait until the end of the cycle for a review. This allows teams to manage every aspect of a project, starting from the ideation phase to the release.
  • Clear deadline. The six-week time frame fosters a culture of ownership because teams have to develop a feasible solution within the product requirements. For example, when we worked on our Slack integration, developers collaborated with designers to determine the tech and design limitations that we were working with and that would greatly impact the design work. We considered questions such as “Is managing integrations important for this launch, or can it wait?” “Should the Slack integration be available for individuals or just teams?” Having a clear deadline allowed us to discuss project constraints realistically and understand what we can deliver now and what can wait. 

In the end, Shape Up allows squads to own the solution from beginning to end. As long as the overall goal is achieved, we are given the space and trust to work on a solution that meets our customers’ needs while being feasible with our current organizational resources.

This way of working is a true manifestation of the culture we want to build at Maze. It means taking full responsibility for the work we deliver as a team, embracing vulnerability, and leaving our egos at the door. That’s where Shape Up thrives — it allows teams to take ownership and be accountable for the work that goes out into the world. And that’s a far better way of living than pushing pixels and writing functions on demand.