How to Maintain and Prioritize an Effective Product Backlog

Product backlogs are a critical facet of Agile project management. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a product backlog is a single, prioritized list of desired product features and improvements. They’re a huge resource for great ideas. Especially if it’s an open backlog, where everyone in the company – or even customers themselves – can submit to it. But this kind of open list can quickly devolve into a dumping ground of minor or conflicting features.

In order to keep poor or scattered ideas from creeping in, product managers need to do more than simply collect requests and toss them into a pile. In order to maintain a proper product backlog, you need to consider what the item in the backlog actually means.   


See the Whole Elephant


You know the old tale: 5 blind men try to describe an elephant. Each gets their part of the elephant right, but assume that’s all there is to it. They don’t see the entire creature.

Managing a product backlog is similar. It’s far too easy to look at a feature request and take it as a single to-do item. You’re hammering away at individual nails, but not seeing what those nails are intended to build.

When submitting backlog ideas, you need to have your team take a step back and use their imagination to see the larger view. Are these individual requests symptoms of a larger problem? When someone files a ticket request and says, “Hey, it would be great to see a pop-up here that tells the user what to do on this screen,” they need to also describe what is the real problem. Could it be that the UI isn’t clear enough on what is expected from the user? Or could it be something else?


Set Up Frameworks to Explore Problems Creatively


Disorganized, randomly-ordered backlogs can be worse than having no backlog at all. They waste resources and don’t solve root issues. Product development efforts can become haphazard and your team may wind up with a hodgepodge of features that have no central theme.

It’s best to have a framework by which you can order and prioritize backlog items by importance. Each company will have different ideas of what important means, but fortunately you can choose from many framework ideas that help you set the priorities you want. Here are but a few:


  • Group by Theme: Prioritize all features around a specific theme, e.g. time-logging related features, or user management issues. Themes can also be built around stakeholders. E.g. What does x group need the product to do?
    Pro: Related items can be tackled together for a more unified user experience
    Con: Risk of ignoring isolated important items that don’t fit a particular theme


  • BRASS Framework: BRASS is a score-based framework where team members score each feature based on multiple factors like relevance and ease of development. The team then prioritizes the backlog items with the highest score.
    Pro: Democratic process
    Con: Risk of focusing on what’s popular internally over what customers need


  • Market Research: This framework prioritizes based on competitor research and market analysis. The team takes direction from the research team as to what items would be in most demand by your customers in order to stay competitive.
    Pro: Keeps product competitive and modern
    Con: Market research can be expensive and doing it thoroughly can take a lot of time


Each framework has its pros and cons. But no matter what framework you choose, the fact remains that you must absolutely have one in place. It’ll focus team efforts in a single direction and improve areas of your product rather than just parts.  


Align Decisions to Company Strategy


To help yourself plan a product roadmap, ask yourself the following 2 questions:

  1. What’s your company’s strategy for the next 4 months?
  2. What’s your company’s strategy for the next 4 years?


You might consider these questions above your pay grade, but they’re really not. Everyone in the company (especially the product team) needs to know this information.

If you know the answer to the first question, you’ll be able to plan out your product roadmap at a more holistic level. This will ensure the features you’re delivering can solve your immediate problems.

If you know the answer to the second question, you can deliver products that will make a difference to the company’s overall direction. It might even transform the business!

Combine this strategic view with whatever framework you choose in order to scope a project according to the scale it deserves. This includes finding ways to find and solve the root cause of a ticket instead of devoting valuable resources to treating the symptoms.

A product backlog is a great way to gather and store brilliant business ideas, but it has to be managed properly rather than haphazardly. Be sure to choose a good method of evaluating backlog items and prioritizing action. This will ensure you maximize your team’s efforts and bring more value to the company.