Hill Charts [Basecamp]

Source: Basecamp

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece in The Ready publication titled “Ending the Tyranny of the Measurable” making the case for the price we pay for our obsession with the quantitatively measurable and offering alternatives for some common use cases. 

This week, I want to add another tool to the toolbox, courtesy of the Basecamp team: 

Hill Charts 

Oddly enough, this post is not even new. It’s 2 years old by now but just got on my radar this past week. 

The premise is very simple: numerical progress tracking is not very insightful. What can we learn from knowing that a project is 42% complete? 

The path towards progress is different depending on what the blocker might be, not to mention that the scope may still be evolving given that unknowns exist. 

Hill charts use the metaphor of a hill to discern between two phases in every problem-solving task. The uphill part is the divergent phase where we figure out different approaches to the solution, and the downhill part is the convergent phase, where we figured out a solution and it’s mostly a matter of execution. 

Source: Basecamp

Hill charts offer a more qualitative, subjective way to reflect progress by positioning a task at a certain point on the hill. Not only does it avoid the false precision in numerical progress tracking, it also allows us to capture relative progress across tasks in a fully relative way — through their different positions on the hill, avoid the proxy of numerical comparisons. Furthermore, reflecting on progress through a hill chart can help direct our attention to the more appropriate strategy for removing blockers or making more progress depending on the problem-solving stage, and act as a trigger for decomposing tasks when we realize that two different pieces are on different places on the hill. And lastly, it helps us avoid misleading numerical aggregation when we zoom out to look at the portfolio level because it’s clear that the underlying project-level assessments are subjective. 

Taking a snapshot of the hill every time we move a task around can serve as a powerful retrospection tool when we look back and aim to learn from our experience completing the project. 

At its core, Hill Charts shift progress tracking from a one-dimensional to a two-dimensional concept and from a discrete to a continuous concept which brings it closer to its true essence in our complex reality. 

As I was learning about Hill Charts, I was immediately reminded of the double-diamond design process, so my only suggested tweak to the Hill Chart would be to turn them into Double Hill Charts, capturing the pre-engineering phases as well. 

The double-diamond design process
Hill Charts [Basecamp]

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