Brian Bailey

September 4, 2023


You can’t have margin without constraints.

At 37signals, we work in 6-week cycles. At the end of the 6 weeks, whatever we’re building has to ship. After the cycle, we have a 2-week cool-down where people can roam, experiment, and fix a nagging frustration or two. It's also a chance to slow down, reflect, and recalibrate. 

The cool-down is a rare gift at work: margin. Humans aren't made to work at full capacity every day of every week of every month without end.

The margin wouldn’t exist, though, without the constraint of 6-week cycles. In Shape Up, work is fixed time, variable scope. Projects can be trimmed and the scope changed along the way, but not the amount of time you work on it.

In most product development, it’s the opposite: fixed scope, variable time. The solution has to include the following five things and time expands until the work is finished. Since building things always takes longer that you estimated, projects run long and when they finally ship, you have to jump immediately to the next thing. It feels like you’re on a long, never-ending sprint because you are.

Margin is a value and like any value, it has to be constantly championed to thrive inside an organization. The appeal of more is just too great.

The Betting Table is where we choose the projects for the next cycle. Most planning meetings focus on how you can squeeze as much as possible into the sprint, cycle, or quarter. If you see a team that may have some unscheduled time, you quickly figure out how to fill the gap. If you trim here, round down there, maybe, just maybe, you can do everything you hoped for. Wouldn’t that be grand!

Then, one project runs into a surprise that requires rethinking the solution. Another can’t be shipped without a simultaneous mobile update. Oh, and someone’s return from vacation was delayed by a day and someone else was sick for not one, but two, whole days. Who knew that was even possible?

Now, project two is going to start a few days later and if that has any hiccups, project three is in jeopardy.

That puts the immaculate plan at risk, but it also puts everyone under intense pressure. Because if things aren’t going according to plan, we tend to question the execution, not the plan.

We’re more concerned about overloading the cycle than it being too light. If teams end up with margin, we can always choose to take on something else. When that happens, it feels like a huge win — we did even more than we planned! Better to add a project when you know there’s room than commit to it when there might be.

Contrast that with the high-wire act of a packed cycle with no margin. Sure, there’s a kind of thrill if everything comes together and ships on time. But one slip, and it all comes tumbling down.

A little margin makes room for a surprise or sickness. It lets people in different time zones work at a healthy pace asynchronously. It means you can go beyond the narrow edges of the problem you’re solving to make the experience better for customers or maybe just easier to work on next time. Margin makes room for creativity, inspiration, and doses of delight. In other words, the things that bring joy to the work.

Every week, we have a designers call. Nothing formal, we just hang out, tell a few stories, maybe talk through some designs. The Zoom meeting room is tied to one of our free accounts, which means it’s limited to 40 minutes. The first time one of our chats ended abruptly, the solution was obvious — update the invite to include a link to one of our paid accounts. The call can end whenever we’re finished.

But JZ said, we could also just leave it and see what happens. Maybe 40 minutes is enough most of the time. If there’s more to talk about, we can just post a new link — a little friction that’s easy to overcome if it’s worth it.

Every week, when that countdown starts in the corner of the Zoom window, I laugh because it’s both ridiculous and perfect. And then I enjoy the twenty minutes of margin I wouldn't have otherwise.

As Jason put it, “We’re never interested in getting the most out of someone. We’re interested in getting the best out of someone.” 

At every chance, choose best over more.

About Brian Bailey

Head of Product Strategy at 37signals, the friendly people behind Basecamp, HEY, and ONCE. Find me elsewhere at and @bb.