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Estimates vs. appetites

Could “starting with a number and ending with a design” work in an agency?

I am fascinated by Shape Up‘s notion of setting an appetite for a feature.

An appetite is completely different from an estimate. Estimates start with a design and end with a number. Appetites start with a number and end with a design. We use the appetite as a creative constraint on the design process.

Ryan Singer, Shape Up

In other words, we should stop saying “here are the specific requirements for feature X, how long will it take?”

Instead, we should say “We want a feature that does X, and our appetite for it is Y weeks. What can you build in that time?”

To make it simple, Basecamp only has 2 possible appetites:

Small Batch: This is a project that a team of one designer and one or two programmers can build in one or two weeks. We batch these together into a six-week cycle.

Big Batch: This project takes the same-size team a full six-weeks.

Ryan Singer, Shape Up

Remember that the best processes are dead simple. It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Decide if each feature is worth a big batch or a small batch, and let the team figure out what they can build in that timeframe. See? I summarized it in a sentence. Simple.

If you work with clients, I’m sure you immediately think of reasons why that wouldn’t work. A few that come to mind for me are:

  • Clients give you requirements and they want a price in the contract. I’ve ranted about that before. It’s hard to escape from “starting with a design and ending with a number.” It’s easier with an existing client because you aren’t trying to win a bid, but it’s still possible with new clients. Maybe we should start talking about appetites early in the discovery phase, after they sign the contract?
  • Basecamp’s teams are small: 1 designer and 1 or 2 developers. Teams at most companies are bigger, and could build more than a single feature in 6 weeks. Maybe we should divide a large team into smaller teams to work on features with appetites?
  • Putting the designer into the team would be a big shift for most companies. Starting development before anything is fully designed would be an even bigger shift. But both of those are valuable, no?

Those are tough problems, but they feel solvable.

What I love about the idea of appetites is that it forces teams to be agile. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation? Responding to change over following a plan? Appetites are agile at their core. I’m curious and hopeful that it would work as well in an agency setting as it does at Basecamp.

Anyone tried it? Tweet me!