For projects following an agile methodology, the term “backlog” refers to pieces of work, otherwise known as “user stories”, that are not currently being worked on.
In traditional project thinking, the backlog would also constitute the project scope, i.e. what needs to be delivered. The only difference here being, your backlog can (and likely will) evolve as the product you’re working on grows and new requirements and features become known.
Left unmanaged, you run the risk of having backlog items that:
- Are no longer relevant
- Do not have sufficient detail
- Have not been approved by the product owner
- Have not been reviewed to ensure feasibility
Backlog grooming (also referred to as backlog refinement) refers to the process by which the product owner and team review the items in the backlog to ensure that they are aligned with the product vision and/or roadmap, that the backlog items are correctly prioritised and sized, and that they are ready for a delivery team to pick them up and start working on them.
But to ensure that you’re tackling backlog grooming in the most effective way, you have to keep the following in mind:
- Timing is everything
Backlog grooming is an essential pre-step to help streamline your formal sprint planning sessions and is therefore most effective when slotted in somewhere mid-sprint.
- You have to be prepared
You need to ensure that all user and customer feedback relating to work already completed has been collected and analysed to help inform decisions to be taken regarding the remaining work items.
- Don’t invite too many people
You really only need your project manager or scrum master, your product owner and one or two key team members who can provide analysis and/or technical input. If you require any other business or development input, gather this before or after the session rather than inviting lots of people to your grooming session.
- Have a clear understanding of priorities
Each backlog item should have an appropriate priority assigned to it. Priority should be determined by considering the associated business, customer and/or technical value. It should not be a case of the development team simply selecting which items they’d like to start with first.
- Break down larger items into more manageable pieces
You should never be in a position where one backlog item stretches across various sprints. Large work items should be broken down into more manageable deliverables than can easily be achieved within a single sprint duration. Therefore, always challenge the team to think small – with small in this context being a stepping stone toward the bigger goal.
- Don’t try to tackle everything in one session
It’s impossible to work through your entire backlog in just one session, and to be honest, if you’re doing them regularly, you really don’t need to either. Set a specific goal for each session, be it doing a clean-up of backlog items no longer needed, identifying new items that need to be added or breaking down the top three items into smaller tasks.
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