Heart palpitations. The trickle of cold sweat down the back of your neck. The clawing sense that you’re drowning under a wave of unfinished tasks. You realize the one thing that was supposed to keep you organized is now the source of your anxiety: your product backlog has gotten out of control. You haven’t been taking backlog grooming seriously, and now you’re reaping the rewards.
With constant incoming product requests, bug fixes, and new ideas to implement, an unruly backlog would be normal for development teams, if it wasn’t for backlog grooming. It’s the key to keeping your product backlog functional, team members focused, and your requested product updates from getting lost in the queue.
What is backlog grooming?
An essential part of the Agile software development process, backlog grooming is like triage for your development team’s to-do list.
Because teams have finite capacity and businesses have varying priorities, not every request, new idea, or bug fix can be accommodated immediately. Instead, a list is created to track items until the team is ready to work on them. This is the product backlog.
But backlogs are dynamic and tend to spiral out of control as conditions change, new opportunities arise, and due dates approach. So it’s up to product managers and owners to periodically look at the backlog, remove the unnecessary, expand the vital, and get items ready for execution in future sprints. This is backlog grooming.
Think of it like pruning a tree so it bears fruit later on.
Backlog grooming is also referred to as backlog management, backlog refinement, or “story time.” This last one is a result of backlogs being substantially made up of user stories. These are basic descriptions of what someone might like to do with your product, told from the perspective of a fictional user. They are how teams define new ideas they want to build into the product. Breaking down a user story into smaller chunks creates story points, which are individual, assignable tasks.
Backlogs also include requests for bug fixes, changes to existing functionality, alterations to product infrastructure, and anything else that the team needs to take care of
Now that you’re up to speed on backlog grooming basics, let’s take a look at how backlog grooming helps your dev team, your product requests, and your business.
The benefits of backlog grooming
Backlog grooming addresses the common complaints coming from a chaotic to-do list: disorganization, ambiguity, siloed information, missed deadlines, cost overruns, wasted time, and so on. Here’s what backlog grooming can bring you instead:
- Improved organization: Backlog items are arranged by priority so that everyone knows what’s coming, when it’s due. This also ensures that nothing is being left out.
- Relevance: Backlog items that are no longer required due to shifting business needs are removed during the grooming process, assuring developers that all tasks are essential to your goals.
- Alignment: Product managers and owners know they’re aiming at the same targets, as defined by your organization’s overall business goals.
- Predictability: By regularly reviewing the backlog, teams can better estimate the resources a task will need, limiting cost overruns, missed due dates, and scope creep.
- Speed: A little grooming saves lots of time during sprint planning.
Of course, the overarching benefit, not just to the dev team, but to the company as a whole, is greater productivity. With more getting done, nothing left out, and stakeholders kept in the loop, everyone is happier and more efficient.
Backlog grooming best practices
Now that you know what backlog grooming is and why you should do it, here’s how you actually get it done.
Get rid of the old
When you look through your backlog, how many user stories, tasks, and issues are outdated? If the answer is “too many,” you’ll have to sift through them every sprint to figure out what you need to work on. You might find issues that were already worked on but never closed or user stories based on features that don’t even exist anymore. Take them out.
Review and flesh out what’s left
When you’ve removed outdated items from your backlog, go through what you have left. Are there multiple, redundant user stories that could be combined into a single story? Maybe some tasks aren’t too clear; they’re missing input from another team, or you need support from your data team before choosing a course of action. Make sure everything left in your backlog is clear enough to be acted on when the next sprint comes.
Add in things you might have missed
Backlog grooming doesn’t just mean taking things out. Sometimes, insights from users and other teams might slip through the cracks, only to be rediscovered when it’s time to plan your next sprint. Go through your organization’s communication channels and reach out to other teams when needed. When you find something actionable, add it to the backlog.
Start preliminary planning
This doesn’t mean “start adding items to your next sprint.” You just want to start setting the stage. Does a user story make you think of a specific developer or team? It might be worth assigning it to them and reaching out to see how they’d achieve it. Or maybe you can anticipate certain roadblocks for a particular item, and you can already think of ways to circumvent them. Again, you’re not planning out execution quite yet, just trying to have some foresight.
Use the DEEP method
Backlog grooming shouldn’t a once-per-sprint kind of thing. You should be consistently keeping an eye on the items that come in so you’re not always scrambling to clean up your backlog. The DEEP methodology, from Roman Pichler, is aimed at making backlog grooming a simple, regular process. He suggests incorporating four backlog grooming best practices, following the acronym DEEP:
- Detailed Appropriately – higher priority tasks should be more detailed. Lower priority details can wait.
- Estimated – apply an estimate of required effort for each item on the list. Your team can determine its own scale of effort as required.
- Emergent – backlogs should be flexible enough to incorporate new items and modify existing ones.
- Prioritized – the highest priority items should appear at the top of the backlog list. Criteria for prioritization can be determined by your team.
How to streamline backlog items
According to the official Scrum Guide, everything that’s in your product backlog should have a few categories in common. When you have a backlog grooming session, one thing you can do is make sure all the items and issues you hold on to have these elements properly outlined:
- Description: You don’t want to go overboard when describing items in your backlog, but you need to give everyone a good idea of what it represents.
- Value: How much of an impact will this item have on the business? Depending on your business model, you might choose different KPIs here, whether that’s MRR, number of signups, or some other metric.
- Order: Think priority. How important is one particular item compared to another? With a detailed priority structure in place, it’s a lot easier to figure out what your team should be working on.
- Estimate: How much time will it take to complete a specific task? When you’re planning your sprint, you need to know how much time will go into each item in your backlog.
With these things figured out, you can go into your next sprint planning session without having to spend the first few minutes of the meeting deleting old items.
How to prepare for a backlog grooming session
If your backlog grooming process involves meetings with multiple people, you need to make sure you’re prepared before going into it. As the product owner or product manager, here’s what you should do to get ready for your next session:
- Know your customers: Everything you do should work towards fulfilling a customer’s need. Whether that’s squashing some tenacious bugs, working on a new feature, or building up your product’s weak points. Know what your customers want and need before you groom your backlog.
- Understand your stakeholders: Customers are only one part of the equation. In reality, much of what you’ll be working on will fall somewhere between what your customers want and what stakeholders expect. So you’d best know what their expectations are.
- Review strategic objectives: Know the business’ objectives before you dive into your product backlog. If you’re in a period of massive growth, your backlog should look very different from when you’ve put a big focus on quality.
- Check the metrics: You should have a good idea of where your important metrics are at before going into a backlog grooming session. Are you behind? Ahead? Need a last push? This will help you figure out where you need to put your resources.
The fruits of your labor
When you go through the backlog grooming process regularly, what are you left with? Priorities are clear, tasks are assigned to the right people, and you have a better idea of what your team should work on come sprint-planning time.
However, the greatest measure of success may be the effect on your team. With stakeholders aligned toward common goals and ambiguity eliminated, stress levels will be low, productivity will be high, and your product will improve with every sprint. No more cold sweats.