Can Shape Up make democratic product design work?

Using the Shape Up methodology to balance the requests of community members and the contextual expertise of builders.

published: April 17, 2023 - last updated: January 23, 2024

A core problem of any organization that is "building something", whether it be software or buildings or artworks, is the question of deciding exactly what should be built and how precisely it should be designed. The usual answer is for organizations to perform market research and surveys to understand what people want before building it.

This arrangement is simple, but can easily produce bad outcomes when the organization fails to understand needs or has corrupting incentives, such as when products are built to encourage actions that aren't in the best interest of immediate users (opens new window). Design is Governance (opens new window), so it is better when power over a design is held directly by those effected by it.

But democratic coordination of such tricky problems as good design can be difficult and inefficient (opens new window). This is a core problem that would be faced by any Open Project Cooperative: how to democratically decide what gets built and how?

§ Wanters vs Creators

In any design process there are "wanters" (those effected by the design whose problems we hope to solve) and "creators" (those creating the design and executing it). It's possible for those two roles to be inhabited by the same person, such as when you select and cook a meal for yourself. But this isn't always the case. Often wanters and builders don't have the same information or incentives.

This is true in the case of democratic cooperatives. Members are more like customers, who don't work inside the cooperative and so don't have contextual information and understanding of what the cooperative can practically achieve. Builders have that contextual information, but don't necessarily understand members problems precisely enough to guess what they want. Our goal is to create a design methodology that allows wanters to democratically exercise control over designs and execution even when they lack the contextual knowledge or expertise necessary to understand every aspect of execution.

The Shape Up methodology (opens new window) provides a sharp tool to solve this problem. It's typically used by for-profit companies, but it can easily be adjusted to make sense in a democratic context. Read the Shape Up site linked above to deeply explore how it works, but as a broad overview I'll describe the three essential actions people take within it:

  • Shaping. The work of coming up with "pitches" (opens new window) for possible projects. Importantly, pitches aren't specified as precise granular tasks, but instead as very loose "breadboards", rough abstract sketches that generally describe the solution, with a strong focus on what problem the pitch intends to solve. This work is usually done by product managers (opens new window), who might have some amount of design or engineering expertise. These people are the ones intended to most directly come into contact with customers and their needs.
  • Betting. The work of choosing which pitches to commit to, necessarily exercising the authority to do so and the accountability for those decisions. Importantly, betting also requires stating some "appetite" (opens new window) for a project, or how much time the organization is willing to bet in order to get a solution. Betting is done on a six week "cycle" (opens new window) to minimize planning overhead. In companies this work is usually done by owners and executives.
  • Building: Actually building a solution requested by the pitch. Importantly, since pitches are loose and abstract and emphasize the problem more than the imagined solution, builders are trusted to exercise expertise and creativity (opens new window) in order to deliver a solution within the appetite. Shape Up uses a strict circuit breaker rule (opens new window) that immediately ends a project if it exceeds the allowed appetite, meaning a project must scale down in response to surprises (opens new window) rather than the schedule scaling up. In companies this work is usually done by engineers and designers.

Shape up is extremely flexible and yet rigorous. It focuses on the completion of useful work rather than trying to predict precisely how the future will play out, or adopting a myopic obsession with making any kind of progress no matter if it's in the wrong direction.

§ Democratic Shape Up

To fit Shape Up to a democratic context, we just have to assign the work of shaping and building to the creators working inside the cooperative, and betting to the voting members of the cooperative (who might also include the builders (opens new window)). Here's a more precise flow:

  • Members have a forum where they can post problems they believe could be solved by the cooperative. They can post thoughts about possible solutions, but emphasis should be placed on problems.
  • These problem statements can then be voted on by members to weight them according to value. Since Adaptive Democracy inherently uses resource voting (opens new window), members can place more voting weights on problems they care more about.
  • Builders can see these problem statements, and shape pitches they believe would solve them. It would likely make sense to create electable community representative roles that combine community management and product management and design expertise, since these people would be well suited to shaping pitches.
  • Builders then submit these pitches and tag them with the problems they target to help members discover and understand them. It's important that pitches are submitted by builders, since pitches must be achievable within the cooperative's constraints. In a democratic context it could cause a lot of pain for everyone if an overconfident and unachievable pitch wins a place in a cycle.
  • Members then cast their real votes to choose which pitches to bet on. By using a Adaptive Commitment process (opens new window) the members can select an arbitrarily nuanced "decision document" to determine the next cycle.

This process is very simple and assigns the different responsibilities and powers to the right people. Since it is implicitly underpinned by Adaptive Democracy, it could also be evolved and changed as needed.

Let me know if you have any thoughts or input, especially if you'd like to experiment with this methodology and would like to talk about finer details. I'd also like to hear if you think even this process is too complicated! Perhaps it's better to simply democratically select a president who can exercise power to drive toward a unified vision?

Thank you!

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