Shopping without a list? That’s development sans a Product Backlog. It’s your checklist for value-driven progress, guarding against alluring distractions.
The Product Backlog is a vital part of Agile. It’s a well-organized to-do list comprising tasks, features, and improvements. These are called Product Backlog Items (PBIs). They cover everything from new features to bug fixes and process tweaks.
What’s interesting is how it evolves with the product and customer needs. The Product Owner keeps it in order, ensuring the top items are the most important. It’s like a guide, leading the team to the crucial tasks.
A Product Backlog is a crucial tool that keeps agile teams on track toward a common goal, constantly fine-tuning to deliver maximum customer value. Those who neglect their Product Backlog might encounter a range of common challenges.
The Product Owner structures the Product Backlog according to customer value, ensuring the highest-priority PBIs are at the top. This centralized organization provides a holistic view, enabling a more effective assessment and ranking of items compared to each other.
When organizing your shopping list, you consider each item’s contribution to your meal plan. Things like chicken and vegetables would be at the top, while treats like Oreos might find their spot toward the bottom. This approach ensures that you can focus on the top items if you’re working within a time limit or budget. This way, even if you can only complete part of the list, you’re guaranteed to bring home the highest value for your meal.
Placing Oreos at the bottom of the shopping list isn’t a universal choice. It all boils down to how one defines value. Similarly, each Product Owner may employ unique methods to assess the value of items in their Product Backlog. It’s a matter of individual perspective and approach.
While organizing a Product Backlog by customer value provides some stability against frequent shifts in priorities, it’s crucial to remember that the backlog’s order isn’t set in stone. The team must remain adaptable to industry shifts, new insights about the product, and evolving customer requirements. This flexibility ensures that everyone stays aligned with changing circumstances.
“The Only Constant in Life Is Change.”
Likewise, I might adjust my shopping list based on a new recipe I’m eager to try, recommendations from friends about trusted or not-so-reliable brands, or upon finding out that a particular product isn’t in stock while at the store.
Teams that neglect to adapt their product backlog may encounter the same challenges that afflict conventional project management approaches. If we deliver based on outdated information, the end product may no longer hold the same value for the customer. It’s crucial to stay flexible and responsive to ensure we’re providing maximum value.
The Product Backlog offers a unified, easily accessible view of all tasks and features. This shared platform enhances communication, ensuring we’re all on the same page and discussing specific items rather than vague concepts. This clarity fosters more effective collaboration among all parties, whether Stakeholders, Customers, Product Owners, or Developers.
Likewise, when we’re out shopping, I can share the list with my partner and have a reasonable assurance that he’ll choose the same items I would. The list is a reliable guide, ensuring we align in our choices.
Of course, the list won’t eliminate all misunderstandings. I still haven’t managed to fix my husband’s ongoing confusion between Miracle Whip and Cool Whip.
Trust me, a sandwich made with Cool Whip doesn’t the same zing as one made with Miracle Whip.
Engaging in constructing and managing the Product Backlog significantly contributes to mitigating risks. A comprehensive view of all upcoming tasks prompts us to identify potential gaps in our assumptions and assess the risk associated with meeting targeted timelines for completion. This proactive approach helps address uncertainties early on, reducing the likelihood of project setbacks.
We maintain a collaborative shopping list accessible to everyone in a shared space. If I deplete our salt supply, it promptly gets added to the list. This practice minimizes the chance of me overlooking it during our shopping expedition. In my younger days, I’d jot down the list just before heading out, resulting in inevitable forgotten items. However, continuously curating the list between shopping trips has significantly diminished the likelihood of overlooking a crucial ingredient.
The Product Backlog ensures that the team’s efforts are aligned, taking small steps in the same direction outlined in individual Product Backlog Items. This clarity in each step helps prevent misunderstandings or conflicting goals, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
Many teams often find themselves with abundant work that may seem impossible. Pressures created by large workloads can sometimes lead to the misconception that starting more tasks will result in accomplishing more. Unfortunately, this often leads to many projects initiated but only a few reaching completion. By utilizing the Product Backlog effectively, teams prioritize and concentrate on finishing tasks at the top before tackling those lower down the list. This targeted approach enhances efficiency and amplifies the throughput of the development team.
The Product Backlog serves as a centralized hub for all pending tasks. It provides a curated list of individual user stories with accompanying notes and high-level details, fostering a shared understanding among the team. When questions arise regarding a particular Product Backlog Item, any necessary clarifications can be seamlessly addressed within the item, ensuring that information is readily accessible to everyone involved.
Similarly, the agile Product Backlog functions as a dynamic record of customer needs. This valuable resource prevents teams from returning to the same discussions and repeatedly rehashing familiar territory.
Empowering teams to self-manage is a crucial aspect of Agile Project Management. The Product Backlog offers a framework that enables the development team to independently select work items based on their position. This ability to choose what to work on next fosters a sense of ownership and encourages active contribution to product increments rather than relying on explicit direction for what to work on next.
At its core, a Product Backlog is a prioritized list of Product Backlog Items. Teams typically have the flexibility to tailor the displayed attributes, with typical choices including title, priority, size, status, and assignee.
Apart from the expected list of Product Backlog items, there are often additional common elements associated with the Product Backlog.
Every team should experiment to determine which elements they find valuable. Embrace what proves helpful and eliminate any unnecessary waste.
If you’re adhering to the Scrum framework, it’s crucial to heed the guidance from the Scrum Guide and incorporate a Product Goal as an integral part of the Product Backlog.
“The Product Goal describes a future state of the product which can serve as a target for the Scrum Team to plan against. The Product Goal is in the Product Backlog. The rest of the Product Backlog emerges to define “what” will fulfill the Product Goal.”
- Scrum Guide
In today’s landscape of remote work, the software your team utilizes to oversee your application lifecycle, such as Jira, Azure DevOps, ClickUp, Shortcut, and so on, will significantly shape the composition of your Product Backlog.
Many teams discover the benefits of incorporating a hierarchical structure that enables the nesting of related items and the breakdown of larger tasks into more manageable chunks. For instance, a Feature-level view allows for expansion to reveal all the contributing user stories.
The Product Backlog encompasses a range of Product Backlog Items, including user stories, bug fixes, features, epics, process improvements, and more. While specific attributes may differ based on the type of PBI, fundamental characteristics generally apply to all PBIs, regardless of their category.
The primary attributes typically associated with PBIs include name, description, size, status, priority, and assignee(s).
Details specific to bugs are examples of attributes that may not be relevant to all PBIs. Information like expected behavior, actual behavior, and steps to reproduce are often crucial for identifying and addressing the underlying issue. These fields don’t apply to user stories.
In a standard Product Backlog setup, you can see items in a prioritized list, displaying only the most crucial attributes for an uncluttered view. For more in-depth information, you can delve into specific items.
A healthy Product Backlog strikes a balance, avoiding excessive clutter or emptiness. The items at the top will be more detailed than those lower down. Considering its adaptability, this emphasizes the need for ongoing refinement to keep the backlog in good shape.
A healthy backlog will be detailed, striking a balance between providing clarity and leaving room for creativity and innovation. It includes estimated upcoming items for planning that will support a sustainable pace. The backlog is also emergent able to adapt to shifting priorities and fresh insights. Prioritization is strategic, aimed at maximizing customer value but balancing that against the product’s long-term sustainability. This approach, known as DEEP, gained prominence through the insights of Roman Pichler.
Based on my experience, the following best practices are fundamental to maintaining an efficient and effective product backlog. Each technique has proven instrumental in addressing typical challenges that teams often encounter.
As mentioned above, you’re targeting a detailed, estimated, emergent, and prioritized Product Backlog. Use this lens to refine your backlog continuously. This rule of thumb will help ensure your team:
Avoids vagueness and excessive detail in requirements. Is well-prepared to make the most of your planning sessions. Keeps the backlog aligned with the current state of affairs Consistently tackles high-value items.
Backlog Refinement, while not universally recognized as a formal event in all agile approaches, is an ongoing process that should occur in manageable increments. Teams must find a rhythm that aligns with their specific circumstances. Striking the right balance is critical—enough detail and estimates to support effective planning without venturing too far into the future, which can lead to wasted effort or shifting priorities.
This collaborative practice involves gathering insights from various stakeholders, including customers, team members, and other relevant parties. While some teams opt for full-team participation, others appoint representatives from different perspectives. It’s crucial, however, to ensure that the Product Owner considers feedback from all angles.
Some teams leverage a team agreement called the Definition of Ready that ensures thorough preparation of PBIs. This way, teams can confidently begin work once capacity permits, without facing external blockers or ambiguity.
While this pertains to the individual PBIs in the list, it’s important to highlight that proficiency in articulating acceptance criteria is essential for the Product Backlog to reach its maximum utility. The ability to express these criteria clearly yet comprehensively contributes to establishing a unified comprehension for all individuals involved.
Considering that the Product Backlog serves as the ultimate source of truth for all tasks, it’s natural to find requests from stakeholders that the Product Owner might not prioritize immediately. These lower-priority items act as provisional placeholders, open to future discussions and refinement.
Yet, as we approach the items at the forefront, we must have already engaged in conversations and broken them into manageable, bite-sized portions. Right-sizing work items ensure they’re reasonably scoped for completion within a single Sprint.
Opting for smaller, standalone tasks allows for more accurate estimation, smoother tracking, and paves the way for more predictable and successful sprints.
While it’s crucial to consider customer value, it shouldn’t hinder essential technical tasks that are vital for the product’s resilience.
Neglecting technical debt can lead to a product that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Codebase updates will slow down, making any changes a painstaking process and raising the likelihood of unforeseen bugs.
Avoid self-deception by assuming customers prioritize new, flashy features over a stable, robust system. It’s imperative to prioritize tasks that uphold a healthy codebase and strike a balance between this foundational work and the development of new features.
“Working software over comprehensive documentation”
- Agile Manifesto
While the end goal of Agile is to deliver functional software, some level of documentation remains crucial. It’s a common misinterpretation of the Agile Manifesto to think it advocates for zero documentation. The avoidance of documentation wasn’t the intended message. The essence is that extensive documentation holds less value for the customer than practical software that effectively addresses their needs.
If Agile artifacts contribute to your team’s ability to produce working software, link them to the Product Backlog Items (PBIs) for easy access. On the flip side, if the last three paragraphs you added to a user story don’t offer additional value beyond what others have already provided, refrain from creating an overly detailed description that may prove time-consuming for someone to read.
Utilize visual representations like story maps, Kanban boards, roadmaps, or a blend of these tools to give your team a comprehensive view of the Product Backlog. The backlog tends to contain many items, so a basic list view might not offer a clear, big-picture perspective. Visual aids enhance visibility, assisting progress tracking, bottleneck identification, and facilitating informed decision-making.
“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
- Agile Manifesto
Regularly scrutinize your Product Backlog, just as you would any other aspect of your process. Take time to reflect on what’s functioning well for the team and where improvements might be beneficial. Are we refining too frequently or not enough? Is everyone on the same page about our progress, the value of current deliverables, what’s on the horizon, and the reasons behind these choices?
Feel free to experiment with new practices or make adjustments to existing ones. If they don’t yield the desired results, we can always revert to previous methods or explore different alternatives.
Throughout my tenure as a Scrum Master, I’ve come across several anti-patterns in product backlog management. These are seemingly plausible solutions to a problem, but in practice, they tend to exacerbate issues.
I’ll outline these practices here to explain the reasoning behind their adoption and why they often prove ineffective.
I’ve seen many Product Owners struggle to find time for backlog prioritization. Some end up doing it hastily just before or even during Sprint Planning. While this may seem reasonable, it often leads to rushed and insufficiently refined PBIs. This last-minute approach can result in incomplete work or items with unresolved unknowns, hindering the team’s ability to plan for and achieve their goals.
Teams sometimes treat the Product Backlog as a dumping ground for every idea, leading to unnecessary clutter. At a previous job, we even had a section known as the “bottom of the backlog,” which we rarely discussed, recognizing it wasn’t a priority. However, fear of missing out kept us from removing these items entirely. FOMO led to a growing backlog that became unmanageable. We then created a third section, making things even more complicated.
I eventually persuaded the team to remove items unlikely to be addressed in the next six months. If they became relevant later, we could revisit them. It’s crucial to keep the backlog realistic and manageable, only focusing on what the team is likely to tackle.
The adaptability of the Product Backlog does have limits. I’ve been on teams where leadership struggled to focus on completing a feature. We’d start a few stories, then shift to the next shiny thing. While this can provide value, for these teams, the feature lacked cohesion without all its parts. It resulted in half-finished ideas, leaving customers feeling like we weren’t doing anything valuable.
Imagine you’re standing in a circle. You take two steps forward, then two steps to the right. Afterward, you take four steps to the left and one step backward. Even though you’ve taken nine steps, you’re only three steps away from where you started.
Please don’t claim that the lack of a clear vision is how one becomes agile.
Epics and features represent larger user stories. While your Product Backlog may contain PBIs of varying sizes, it’s crucial to right-size them by the time they come up for development. Failing to break down the work into manageable chunks can lead to difficulties completing it within a single Sprint. These difficulties, in turn, prolong the release process and delay our receipt of valuable customer feedback.
Ensuring that we appropriately sized our work enhances manageability and mitigates risks. These risks include investing efforts in the wrong direction and potentially missing crucial deadlines. Having a small task fully completed is more beneficial than having multiple large ones only halfway done.
I’ve witnessed Product Owners engaging extensively with customers, sometimes proposing elaborate solutions to what isn’t inherently a complex issue. The request ends up being for something that would take considerably longer to build than simply addressing the problem directly.
We may not exclude the development with ill intent; it’s often an attempt to safeguard the team’s time. However, it’s essential to refrain from sidelining the developers from contributing to the solution. Their insights frequently lead to more efficient approaches and set more realistic expectations.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
- Henry Ford
Occasionally, we may fall into the trap of arrogance, believing we know what’s best for the customer. We attempt to design a product to simplify their lives, even when we don’t fully understand their experiences.
Exercise extreme caution if you find yourself disregarding stakeholder input. When your vision diverges from their actual needs, it seldom leads to positive outcomes. Remember, what worked for Henry Ford doesn’t necessarily apply universally.
The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that compels us to adhere to a plan in which we’ve invested a lot of time. We believe that a meticulously crafted plan cannot be wrong. Consequently, this bias may lead a team to persist with a plan even when it no longer aligns with the current situation.
This mindset contradicts one of the four values of the Agile Manifesto:
“Responding to change over following a plan.”
Furthermore, if we approach it from a purely logical standpoint, it becomes evident that it is imprudent not to integrate new information and feedback. To have the most effective plan, we must be willing to adapt it as we gain knowledge and make progress. The product backlog is not something we can set and forget. Neglecting continuous backlog refinement can impede your team’s capacity to provide pertinent solutions.
I’ve observed many teams brush aside dependencies, perhaps with a hint of wishful thinking. The common belief is that it’s a problem for the future, and we’ll sort it out during the Sprint. Yet, more often than not, it leads to unresolved dependencies, work spillover, and unnecessary stress.
Rather than assuming we can handle all dependencies mid-Sprint, it’s wise to proactively identify them before Sprint Planning. Regularly communicate with the teams responsible for resolving these dependencies. Establish clear delivery timelines to ensure you have what you need before it becomes a blocker for your team. This proactive approach is far more effective than feeling like a victim of external circumstances.
We’ve touched on the importance of addressing technical debt and maintenance earlier, but let’s revisit it for those who might have missed it. I’ve observed teams repeatedly becoming so focused on delivering immediate customer value that they struggle to recognize the significant value in addressing technical tasks, maintenance, and resolving technical debt. Consequently, they continuously churn out feature enhancements.
At first glance, prioritizing features requested by customers may seem like the optimal approach to maximize customer value. While customers may not explicitly request security patches and updates, there is undeniable value in performing this essential work. Ask any company that has experienced a security breach; if given the chance to go back and prevent it by prioritizing patches over the last three features, their response would undoubtedly be a resounding “yes.”
The Product Owner is accountable for maintaining the Product Backlog, though we often overlook that they can delegate this task to others.
“The Product Owner is also accountable for effective Product Backlog management, which includes:
- Developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal;
- Creating and clearly communicating Product Backlog items;
- Ordering Product Backlog items; and,
- Ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible and understood.”
- Scrum Guide
Acknowledging that even the most discerning Product Owner can’t foresee every detail is crucial. Managing most backlogs is a collective effort. The process runs more smoothly when the entire team collaborates and comprehends the items on the list.
Those questioning who owns the backlog often seek to assign blame for what they perceive as a backlog management issue. If this applies to you, asking how you can assist is healthier than focusing on someone else’s perceived shortcomings.
Avoid the bottleneck of relying solely on the Product Owner for entering tasks in the project management tool. Empower the team to collaborate and update the items as needed by anyone on the team.
If the Product Owner struggles to effectively manage the backlog, try to identify the reasons. They may be allocating too much time to less critical tasks they could delegate to someone else or stop doing them entirely.
While collaboration and feedback are crucial, striking a balance is essential. The Scrum Guide emphasizes:
“The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the needs of many stakeholders in the Product Backlog. Those wanting to change the Product Backlog can do so by trying to convince the Product Owner.”
- Scrum Guide
When multiple individuals vie for prioritizing backlog items, disagreements can ensue, resulting in squandered time and resources.
In various agile approaches like Extreme Programming, SAFe, DSDM, Crystal, and Kanban, the role of a Product Owner may not be universally recognized. If you’re following a methodology other than Scrum, consult your guidelines to identify the equivalent responsibility.
Use a Product Backlog in scenarios where requirements may evolve or are not entirely clear upfront. It provides flexibility, allowing teams to adapt to changing needs efficiently. However, assessing the specific context is necessary to determine if a Product Backlog is the most suitable approach.
A Product Backlog is particularly valuable in complex projects where the requirements will likely evolve. Defining all requirements upfront can be challenging in such scenarios and may lead to inefficiencies. Teams can start with a basic understanding and add, modify, or refine items as they gain more insights. This iterative approach aligns well with Agile and helps teams stay responsive to evolving business needs.
Another suitable scenario for implementing a Product Backlog is during the early stages of a project, especially when the exact path to the end goal is unclear. It provides a structured yet flexible framework for capturing ideas, features, and potential requirements. As the team explores different avenues and gathers feedback, they can refine the backlog items accordingly. This continuous refinement allows for a more organic and adaptive development process, ensuring that the final product better aligns with the actual needs and goals of the stakeholders.
The Product Owner is primarily accountable for ensuring the Product Backlog’s transparency and understanding. They work closely with stakeholders, gathering requirements and articulating them in a way that the development team comprehends.
Yes, making the Product Backlog visible to stakeholders promotes transparency and ensures everyone is on the same page regarding progress and priorities, fostering valuable collaboration. However, it’s important to note that while transparency is crucial, it should complement, not replace, regular communication with stakeholders to avoid potential pitfalls.
The Product Backlog is fundamental to Agile, enabling adaptability, customer focus, and continuous improvement. It empowers teams to address evolving needs and prioritize essential features, fostering collaboration. However, there’s a counter perspective. Some argue that traditional backlog management may not always seamlessly align with Agile principles.
Some critics argue that traditional backlog management practices may inadvertently conflict with Agile principles. They contend that strict adherence to a fixed backlog can sometimes stifle creativity and responsiveness. These detractors advocate for more dynamic approaches, which involve continually reevaluating and re-prioritizing work items to better reflect the ever-evolving project landscape.
Some even argue that a backlog and the maintenance it requires are unnecessary and lead to excessive waste. These proponents propose instead to determine the next tasks as capacity becomes available. After all, if the work is truly important, we’re unlikely to forget about it.
The Product Backlog is one of the three Scrum artifacts. This artifact plays a significant role in the framework, appearing in almost all events.
In Sprint Planning, the Product Owner presents the top-priority Product Backlog items to the Scrum Team. They then discuss and refine these items to ensure everyone understands what they must do in the upcoming Sprint.
During the Sprint Review, the Product Owner and the development team present the completed work to the stakeholders. This demo is an opportunity to review the Product Backlog and adjust it based on feedback received during the review.
The Sprint Retrospective is a meeting for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements. They may reference the Product Backlog to identify any backlog-related issues or potential improvements.
The Product Backlog undergoes continuous refinement during the Sprint. As the team gains new insights, PBIs are promptly updated to align with the evolving situation.
The Daily Scrum is a time-boxed event lasting 15 minutes, dedicated to the development team’s planning for the next 24 hours. Unlike other events, the Product Backlog is typically not featured here. Instead, the Scrum Team operates from the Sprint Backlog, which offers a concentrated view of selected PBIs and improvement items originating from retrospectives.
Product backlog management tools play a crucial role in Agile development by providing teams with a structured platform to organize, prioritize, and refine their product backlogs. These tools enhance collaboration, transparency, and efficiency throughout the development process.
Below is a list of tools that I have some experience with. They all have pros and cons, but if you’re looking for a tool to manage your Product Backlog, these might be an excellent place to start to evaluate what would be best for your team and specific circumstances.
Here’s a compilation of tools I’ve had hands-on experience with. Each comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. If you’re searching for a tool to streamline your Product Backlog management, this list can serve as a solid starting point for evaluating what might suit your team and unique circumstances best.
The Product Backlog is like a shopping list for agile teams, serving as a central repository for all the work needed. It aligns efforts, prevents misunderstandings, and keeps everyone on the same page.
Like maintaining a well-organized shopping list, curating the Product Backlog between sprints reduces the risk of forgetting crucial items. Prioritization is key; completing top-priority items before moving to lower-priority ones improves efficiency.
A well-managed backlog balances detail and manageability, avoiding overload or sparseness. Just as a shopping list should be detailed enough to ensure understanding but wouldn’t be so specific as to list each item’s barcode, a Product Backlog should be refined but not overly burdensome.
Continuous refinement, akin to keeping a shopping list up-to-date, is essential for a healthy backlog. It prevents common dysfunctions and ensures the team stays on track with the evolving path of customer value.
Finally, remember that the Product Backlog isn’t a one-size-fits-all tool. It may include various elements and attributes based on the team’s needs, much like how a shopping list might vary depending on individual preferences and dietary requirements. Always customize to what brings value.
Essentially, tending to your Product Backlog is akin to maintaining a well-curated shopping list. Prioritize, refine, and adapt for a streamlined and efficient journey towards delivering maximum customer value.