Agile Project Management: Refining your Product Backlog

Agile Project Management Refining your Product Backlog

Agile scrum is almost a universally accepted methodology for product owners, development teams and customers the world over. Product backlog refinement is a critical agile project management activity that must be looked into in detail.

The moment one hears the words “product backlog” the understanding is there is a ready list of items, features or enhancements that just need to be worked upon.

Far from true. The product itself and the vision are easily overlooked. The word product in the product backlog is there for a reason 🙂

Understanding the Product Backlog

Having a robust and clear understanding of the product and the vision is crucial to getting there.

Sprints are the means to realize your product vision and the product backlog helps you piece the vision together.

But then, what is that goes into the product backlog?

Is it a wish list of features from all stakeholders? – NO

Is it a quick action items your customer wants get implemented for a product or service? – NO

Is it something your competitors’ product has and so must yours? – NO

Well, an ideal product backlog is one where

  • The product backlog items are well-defined. Meaning, all stakeholders, the product owner, the scrum team know why it exists in the first place and its significance to the overall product and the roadmap.
  • The product backlog items have clear epics, user stories and tasks. – The idea here is to have tactical clarity in terms of execution. Well-defined user stories with clear acceptance criteria, minimal overlap and dependencies with other stories are signs of a healthy and well-crafter product backlog.

Now let us take a step back and just understand the overall significance of the product backlog and the product owner’s role in maintaining the product backlog.

Product Owner is the voice of the customer. He is responsible to deliver a product that meets the agreed “definition of done” or also known as the “acceptance criteria”.

To achieve that he needs to visualize the overall product journey, understand the customer’s requirements, goals & approach as well as plan the overall execution that ties all of it in a seamless manner.

Now, the product backlog is the product owner’s baby. It is under his absolute control so to speak. Not in an authoritative way but from a strategic aspect.

Hence, ensuring that the product backlog is relevant to the overall product vision at all times is of utmost importance.

And this is called Product Backlog refinement.

What goes into the product backlog refinement?

First of all, the product owner revisits the backlog constantly to identify stories that are no longer relevant to the product.

Identify and prioritize stories based on the value and significance to the overall product schedule.

Refining the product backlog is usually a collaborative effort between the product owner and the development team, product owner and the stakeholders or all 3 of them together.

There is no prescribed rule as such and is highly dependent on the agile setup of the organization itself.

But some of the key activities and benefits of backlog refinement are

  • Clarity at a granular level of all features or items that will be executed.
  • Development team estimate the PBIs, know what is expected of them and seek clarity where needed from the PO.
  • Transparent discussions around the effort vs business value are held to decide if the item should really be part of the backlog or be discarded.
  • Product backlog refinement meetings act as another medium for increased collaboration among the PO, Development team and the stakeholders.
  • The acceptance criteria gets solidified and the team is more focused on the quality of the deliverable.
  • Confusion and clutter from the backlog are eliminated with every subsequent backlog refinement meeting.
  • Greater acceptability of the PBIs within the development team.

Note: Product Backlog refinement is done only for the items that are currently not being implemented via any sprints.

Savvy product owners always strive to ensure that the product backlog for the next 3-5 sprints are well-groomed and ready for the development team to pull into a sprint.

There is a crucial business significance associated with the product backlog refinement. Because, business strategy and priorities change. External market conditions also come into play.

Thus, the go to market strategy at times act either as an inhibitor or accelerator to the product backlog prioritization.

Hence, which items get picked for the upcoming sprints maybe decided by the above factors?

Nevertheless, the chances of this happening may be rare but there is always a possibility.

Hence, a robust and well-groomed backlog will always keep you ahead of the curve & help realize the product vision faster.

Conclusion

Backlog refinement is a must do activity from an agile project management perspective, but yet scrum hasn’t considered it amongst one of its events.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact as to how backlog refinement measures enable better story point estimation, sprint planning and monitoring the sprint velocity.

You get a good handle over the development teams’ performance and the teams are also grow competent in improving their sprint execution and velocity.

The strategic and tactical benefits, do call for making backlog refinement a common practice across your agile teams. It helps building the momentum, enable seamless collaboration, better understanding of customer requirements and deliver products with optimum quality.

More importantly, the concept of “self-organizing teams” augurs well for the organization as agile project teams are well aligned with the overall roadmap and vision of the company.

When was the last time you did a product backlog refinement?

What practices work best for you?

Which agile project management tools you use for scrum project delivery?

Share your experiences and insights in the comments below!

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