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Backlog Grooming vs Backlog Refinement

By Miranda Dulin
Published in Agile Mindset
July 18, 2021
4 min read
Backlog Grooming vs Backlog Refinement

I never knew the reason why this Scrum activity seemed to have two names. Recently, I came across a claim that “grooming” is a trigger word. Perplexed, I decided to do more research, and the article below details my findings.

One Activity, Two Names

First, let’s be clear, these two terms refer to the same activity. I did happen upon a few articles implying that Backlog Grooming and Backlog Refinement were two separate activities; that simply is incorrect.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

-William Shakespeare

Product Backlog refinement only gets a few sentences in the Scrum Guide:

“Product Backlog refinement is the act of breaking down and further defining Product Backlog items into smaller more precise items. This is an ongoing activity to add details, such as a description, order, and size. Attributes often vary with the domain of work.”

-Scrum Guide

The evolution of this mention was more interesting in my pursuit to learn why we changed the name.

Evolution of the Scrum Guide

Mitch Lacey has a nice list of current and past Scrum Guides on his site if you’d like to have a look for yourself.

Version 1 of the Scrum Guide (Oct 2010) just mentioned backlog grooming as a tip in a floating box to the right of the section about the Product Backlog. Notice, though, that the guide refers to the activity as grooming.

In version 2 (July 2011), the creators of Scrum restructured the guide a bit, and the reference to backlog grooming transitions from a tip floating off to the side to text in the main body of the document. I’ve seen others refer to this transition as upgrading the activity from a tip to a practice. I believe it was just a general re-design of the document. Removing all the tiny tip boxes necessitated restructuring the guide to retain any relevant information previously labeled tips.

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Version 4 (July 2013) is where the name changed happened. The editors simply replaced the term “grooming” with “refinement.” The surrounding words remained unchanged, which serves as definitive proof that these aren’t two discrete activities.

Trigger Word

For those that don’t know me, I grew up in eastern Kentucky and haven’t traveled the world a lot. Heck, these days, after COVID has allowed me to work remotely, I hardly ever leave the house. So, you might say I’m a bit sheltered.

While reading an article on building trust in scrum teams I was perplexed by the reference to the word “grooming” as a trigger word.

Uptigh Boss
Starchy shirted tie-wearing stiff

My first assumption was that some starchy shirted tie-wearing stiffs were uncomfortable with the association of people showering and shaving. This theory felt far-fetched even to me, but then again, some people find the word “moist” aversive.

Some quick digging uncovered that “grooming” has more than one definition. The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the second definition for grooming:

“the action by a pedophile of preparing a child for a meeting, especially via an internet chat room, with the intention of committing a sexual offense.”

Ah, yes, I suppose that clears up how it might be a trigger word.

To back up the significance of this definition, Google Trends seems to indicate this version is becoming the predominant usage.

Word Choice Matters

My husband often makes speech errors known as semantic paraphasias, replacing the intended word with one of similar meaning. Although I can typically reason through these slips, there have been times where the words were close enough that it caused some confusion.

“The sky is a pretty green today” can pretty safely be ignored with the assumption that he intended to say blue.

Green Sky
Green Sky

“Park next to the green car” introduces some confusion, especially when there isn’t a green car. Did he mean the blue car? Or perhaps the red car? Clearly, my husband intended to articulate a color, but there is no way to infer which one is accurate.

In my husband’s situation, he commonly doesn’t realize that he’s misspoken at all. I tend to suffer from a different issue. I frequently find that the perfect word that would articulate my meaning illudes my tongue, leaving me with a subpar substitute. I totally believe that correct word choice is paramount to good communication, but sometimes you have to take what you can get and just hope that your meaning comes across.

For me, the name “Backlog Grooming” never quite felt the best fit for the activity. It was in the ballpark, so to speak but didn’t completely capture the essence of the work.

This lack of precision is the primary reason that I’ve adopted the term “Backlog Refinement.” I believe this name feels more suited to the activity.

While researching this name change, I ran across a surprising number of comments that the chosen word doesn’t really matter; it’s the intent that is important. Although I can empathize with this way of thinking, I think it can be a very slippery slope.

It takes nearly no effort for me to opt for “refinement” over “grooming.” The value returned by that effort is that we have a word that more closely aligns with the activity’s intent while also using more respectful language.

To stick with a phrase that some find distasteful isn’t the best descriptor of the activity, and has been changed in the Scrum cannon, just seems lazy to me.

Works Consulted

  • 5 Ways a Scrum Master can build trust on a Scrum Team
  • Scrum Guide
  • Official Scrum Guide (Current and Past Versions)
  • Political Correctness Shouldn’t Be Political


Product Backlog Refinement is the official term, and it captures the essence of the activity better than the original backlog terminology. Since grooming’s other definition gives people the heebie-jeebies, I’ll choose to avoid it when I can.


Previous Article
Writing a Worthy Sprint Goal (9 Characteristics)
Miranda Dulin

Miranda Dulin

Scrum Master

Table Of Contents

One Activity, Two Names
Evolution of the Scrum Guide
Trigger Word
Word Choice Matters
Works Consulted

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