How to Optimize Your Product Backlog for Better Sprintsby@Iba
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How to Optimize Your Product Backlog for Better Sprints

by IbaMAugust 11th, 2020
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A backlog is essentially just a prioritized to-do list for your project. Agile Alliance defines the product backlog as a list of the new features, changes to existing features, bug fixes, infrastructure changes or other activities that a team may deliver in order to achieve a specific outcome. When your backlog isn’t properly maintained, you can focus on the wrong tasks, lose track of priorities, and feel like you’re being pulled in a million directions. Using a sprint backlog helps keep everyone focused on the immediate tasks at hand without feeling bogged down.
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Scrum is an increasingly popular way to manage projects, and for a good reason. It can help your small teams deliver higher quality products faster and more efficiently than before. 

But, effective sprints require a well-groomed product backlog. When your backlog isn’t properly maintained, you can focus on the wrong tasks, lose track of priorities, and feel like you’re being pulled in a million directions.  

So, how do you keep a healthy backlog and keep your team on track? Read on for our three essential tips on how to effectively groom your product backlog and improve your team’s sprint planning and performance. 

What is a Product Backlog?

If you’re not familiar with Scrum project management, you may have never heard of a product backlog before. A backlog is essentially just a prioritized to-do list for your project. 

Definition of a Product Backlog

Agile Alliance defines the product backlog as, “a list of the new features, changes to existing features, bug fixes, infrastructure changes or other activities that a team may deliver in order to achieve a specific outcome.”

Think of it as a massive to-do list that covers every feature, change, fix, or activity that your team needs to accomplish to deliver the final product to the customer. 

But, your backlog isn’t something you create once and then follow blindly. As your project progresses, priorities change, and feedback is provided, you need to add, change, remove, and reprioritize items on your list. 

Your backlog should always have the most important, highest priority items at the top, so your team knows what to tackle first. 

The items near the top should be fully fleshed out, so requirements are clear. But, we recommend not worrying too much about fleshing out the longer-term items right away. 

You can add detail as more info becomes known, and items move up the list. Just focus on getting enough info so that you can accurately prioritize the features or activities. 

Product vs. Sprint Backlog

There are three main artifacts of Scrum: the product backlog, the sprint backlog, and the product increment. So, what’s the difference between the two backlogs? 

Think of the product backlog as your entire to-do list for the project and the sprint backlog as what you need to-do right now. It’s the section of the product backlog that your team will tackle in the current sprint. 

Before every sprint begins, our team sits down for a sprint planning meeting where we review the product backlog and determine which items we’re going to accomplish in the next sprint. 

These features, requirements, changes, etc., then move over to our sprint backlog, and that’s what the team works from during the sprint. Using a sprint backlog helps keep everyone focused on the immediate tasks at hand without feeling bogged down by a massive to-do list. 

Why Is It Important to Groom The Backlog?

Imagine you created a personal to-do list for the next eight months. Then, two months in, you discover you’re going to have a baby. Are you going to stick to the same list of things to tackle for the remaining six months? 

Of course not! You’re going to cross things off the list that are no longer a priority and add new items to address the coming life changes. 

Priorities change on projects just as they do in life. The customer realizes they really need a feature they previously overlooked. Or your team discovers a critical bug they must resolve. Things change, and a cornerstone of Agile is maintaining the flexibility to adapt to those changes. 

Keeping your backlog up-to-date (aka grooming it) ensures you’re always focusing on the right priorities and delivering the right features to your customer. 

If everyone is working off a static list, your team can end up delivering something the customer no longer wants while overlooking essential needs. Ultimately, there will be confusion, rework, and frustration all around. 

How to Keep Your Backlog Healthy

Keeping your backlog groomed can seem like an overwhelming, time-consuming venture. But it doesn’t have to be. 

From our personal experience, one of the biggest challenges of a healthy backlog is keeping your key stakeholders on the same page when it comes to the priority of features. So, in that vein, here are our three top tips for keeping your product backlog healthy without it sucking up all of your time. 

💡 Tip 1: Have Key Stakeholders Collaborate Together

It’s critical that all of your key stakeholders engage with each other and discuss and debate the "what", "why", and the "how" to help drive alignment. 

Don’t get caught up as the go-between. 

Gathering them all together (in person or virtually) will save everyone time and ensure nothing gets lost in translation as you try to shuttle messages back and forth between stakeholders. 

Create a shared understanding about the priority (the why) and the actual scope (the what and the how) early so that the team will have greater confidence in project sequencing and timelines (the when) right from the get-go. This will minimize surprises that would delay or derail your projects. 

For smaller organizations, you can often promote collaboration and achieve consensus by bringing together your senior leaders and the development team (leads) into one meeting. 

For larger organizations with multiple complex projects, you may have too many key stakeholders for this to be practical. Instead, you can organize different meetings for different levels of the company to discuss their priorities.

💡 Tip 2: Use a Prioritization Framework

A prioritization framework will help you promote alignment and resolve conflicts during grooming discussions. 

Product prioritization frameworks give you a way to decide what to work on next without worrying about stakeholder biases or relying on gut feelings. There are plenty of frameworks to choose from. So, you can select the one that works best with your team and project. 

One of the simplest frameworks to use is Value vs. Complexity. Create a diagram with value on the left as the y-axis and complexity across the bottom as the x-axis. Then split the diagram into four quadrants or boxes. Next, take each feature on your backlog and put it into whichever box it fits best. 

When it’s time to tackle features, you address them in the following order of priority:

- High value, low complexity: These make a huge difference with minimal effort

- High value, high complexity: These features add a lot of value but require more time, resources, or costs

- Low value, low complexity: This quadrant includes those features that would be nice to have, but you can live without

Low value, high complexity: This box includes features that are more trouble than they’re worth 

If you’re still struggling to prioritize features within each of the four buckets, there are other more complex frameworks you can look into. Some of the most popular prioritization framework options include:

- Rice (Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort)

- The Kano model 

- Weighted Scoring Prioritization

The MoSCoW method (Must-Have, Should-Have, Could-Have, and Won’t-Have)

Opportunity Scoring

💡 Tip 3: Document Discussions, Questions, and Decisions

Ever have a client furiously claim you left out a key feature? Even though you have no recollection of ever hearing them mention wanting it before? 

That’s the risk you take when you don’t document everything. 

At Tara, we make sure to document every discussion, question, and decision right from the requirements stage. Doing so provides context around our features list, eliminates ambiguity for everyone and helps lead discussions around backlog grooming and prioritization. 

Any time a stakeholder requests a change to your backlog or the priority of items, record it somewhere you can easily find it later. Simply recording questions, requests, demands, and discussions will save your whole team a lot of headaches as the project progresses. 

You’ll never again have to worry about a feature being missed. And if a client (or other stakeholder) insists they’ve already asked for something, you’ll have solid proof to support whether they actually did or not.  

Using a collaboration software like Slack can help you record and store all of your conversations in a central location. Just make sure the tool you select lets you organize discussions, has an easy-to-use search function and doesn’t delete your history after a certain point (the free version of Slack limits your access to past messages!) 

Final Words

If you’re new to sprint planning, keep in mind that things won’t always go smoothly, especially in the beginning –- we know this from experience. Your product backlog will never be perfect right off the bat, which is why it’s so critical to refine it and groom it as you go. 

Focus on selecting the right Product Owner and capturing all the essential features and tasks. Work on detailing the high priority items without worrying too much about those further down the list. Prioritizing work consistently, using a metric and categorizing items, especially on a large backlog, to help you sort and review it. And have regular pre-planning meetings to modify the backlog based on changes and new info. 

Next Steps

Want more help refining and grooming your backlog for optimal sprint planning? Check out Tara – the smart and free alternative to Jira. Our sprint management software can help you keep your backlog healthy, improve your sprint planning, and increase velocity. Get free access here.