Brian Bailey

September 12, 2023

Strict scrutiny

The Betting Table is how product priorities are chosen in Shape Up. It’s essentially a planning meeting—priorities are debated, projects picked, and teams finalized—but, it still prompts a lot of questions. What’s so different?

Let’s start with the basics.

The meeting is three people: Jason (CEO), David (CTO), and myself (Head of Product Strategy). We meet for an hour before each 6-week cycle. (Often, not always—sometimes others join or it’s asynchronous.) During the call, we choose projects for roughly seven two-person teams and multiple products. For more, checkout this chapter of Shape Up and episode of REWORK

The Betting Table differs from typical planning in a few important ways.

Pitches, not ideas
We’re choosing from a small collection of recently shaped pitches, not every idea languishing in a backlog. A pitch means someone has spent a few days or weeks thinking through the problem and exploring solutions. A pitch is typically 500-800 words, plus a sketch or two. 

Only a few ideas are turned into pitches. The idea has to be worth shaping and then worthy of a pitch. Many times, a problem turns out to be less of a pain point than first thought or the solution requires more work and complexity than our appetite. In those cases, we set it aside. Maybe sometime in the future, we'll have a different take. 

Before we meet, a wider group reviews the pitches to surface technical traps and simpler ways to solve the problem. 

Appetites, not estimates
The starting point for a project isn’t “Given this list of requirements, how long will it take?” Instead, it’s “How much time is worth investing in this?” If you want to clean out your garage this weekend, do you have an appetite of a few hours or two days? What you do will be very different depending on your answer. 

Your chances of successfully planning a cycle are higher with appetites instead of estimates because the time for each project is fixed—it’s the scope of the solution that can change. The team on the project decides what eventually ships.

Bets, not plans
The Betting Table sounds like more fun than Cycle Planning, but that’s not the reason for the name.

Bets make it clear that the outcome is unknown. You can write the most detailed plan, talk to dozens of customers, mock up multiple solutions, and anything else that will increase your confidence, but until you put a real solution in the hands of real people, you just don’t know.

Plus, bets are commitments. The only way a team can be responsible for shipping within the appetite is if they’re not interrupted during the cycle and priorities don’t change.

Finally, a smart bet limits how much you can lose. Sticking to an appetite means at most you’re going to invest 2-6 weeks in something. A project can’t grow to consume weeks or months beyond what it’s worth.

Best, not most
The bar is high for a pitch to be chosen for a cycle. I call it strict scrutiny.

It starts with whether the problem is truly worth solving and ends with whether this is the right way to solve it. Changing a product has costs beyond the work involved to ship it. There’s the cost to customers who have to learn and adapt. Our cost is reduced flexibility. The next idea has to build on top of this one, both in the code and the product, which limits the options.

That’s why there’s so much focus on narrowing the problem definition and solution to the essentials and nothing more. Anything that’s tangential or hypothetical gets removed.

We’d much rather a team have margin to work on other things than spend more time on something than it’s worth. With more time, you can always come up with ways to expand the solution, but that’s how you end up with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t have to be there. 

Most companies focus on the question, “How can we do more?” Here, we're always asking, “How can we do less?”

Decisions, not consensus 
One reason the Betting Table raises so many questions is that even if the process is clear, how decisions are made may not be. How do you actually decide? Why this thing instead of that thing?

Shape Up includes great questions to ask, but it’s not a decision-making framework. Every organization will have its own approach.

You can get a sense for ours in this guide to making decisions. It isn’t specific to product, but much of it applies. 

The Betting Table works so well for us because… 

  • The goal is to make decisions, not reach consensus. Planning meetings are notorious for lasting hours, even days. Part of that is trying to get many people with different priorities to agree. The Betting Table isn’t a democracy.
  • It’s clear who ultimately makes the decision. We’re usually on the same page, but if there’s a debate that can’t be resolved, Jason makes the call. 
  • All of the necessary context is in the room. Jason and David own the company and can speak to the needs of the business, product, and engineering. They can decide whether a trade-off is worth it. There are no external forces, like a board, investors, or even OKRs, to take into account.
  • We’re not choosing what to work on for the next 6 weeks, which could be literally anything. We’re deciding what to ship in the next 6 weeks. Those options are far fewer, which means that each can be carefully considered.
  • We embrace product as an art, not a science. We don’t use formulas, rubrics, or prioritization frameworks. Experience, customer feedback, data, what’s slowing us down, who’s available, things we’re especially excited or frustrated about right now, stuff that keeps new customers from being successful — all of that and more play a part. But in the end, it comes down to informed intuition. 
  • If we’re wrong, we get to do it all again in 8 weeks!

Hopefully that helps demystify the Betting Table. If you have questions or are unsure how to make it work, reach out.

About Brian Bailey

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