What is backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming is a regular session where backlog items are discussed, reviewed, and prioritized by product managers, product owners, and the rest of the team. The primary goal of backlog grooming is to keep the backlog up-to-date and ensure that backlog items are prepared for upcoming sprints. Additionally, the process helps product managers explain and align the organization behind the strategy that informs the backlog items.

Backlog grooming, referred to also as backlog management, backlog refinement, pre-planning, or story time, is a widely adopted activity by Scrum and agile product teams. The most common tactical activities that occur during backlog management include:

  • Removing outdated user stories and tasks.
  • Adding new user stories that reflect newly discovered user insights.
  • Breaking down broad user stories into smaller items.
  • Reordering user stories based on their priority.
  • Explaining and clearly defining user stories and tasks to avoid uncertainty and “black box” communication.
  • Assigning or re-assigning story points and estimates.
  • Identifying roadblocks and minimizing risks related to backlog items.

Benefits of backlog grooming

When done effectively, recurring backlog grooming sessions can keep your backlog in check and improve the organization of the items listed in it.

There are several important reasons to adopt backlog grooming:

Keeps the backlog clean

Depending on how big your organization is and your company structure, your backlog can receive input from several different teams and departments. Left unattended, this could lead to a messy backlog with a lack of cohesive qualities across backlog items and an overwhelming number of outdated items.

Conversely, a groomed backlog is always in a manageable state. This makes it easier for the whole team to navigate through the backlog items and contribute more efficiently.

Keeps the backlog relevant

The purpose of backlog refinement is to ensure that the backlog is populated with initiatives that are relevant, well-documented, and prioritized in accordance with the needs of the customer and organization. Nothing gets built unless it’s on the backlog, but listing an item on the backlog doesn’t guarantee that it will be executed. The backlog refinement process ensures that only the most relevant tasks get committed for delivery in the following sprint.

Keeps the whole product team up to date

An unorganized backlog with poorly formulated backlog items can lead to ambiguity and miscommunication across teams, as well as bad product decisions. In contrast, a refined backlog supports effective team conversations and allows everyone to be on the same page when it comes to new features, bugs, user insights, or other product-related initiatives.

Increases work velocity

A groomed backlog helps your product team deliver features more rapidly and keeps the organization moving forward. It reduces the time product managers and product owners spend planning sprints and increases the productivity of everyone involved in building the product.

Who owns the backlog grooming process? 

Depending on the structure of your organization and whether you employ Scrum and agile methods, the backlog grooming process could be performed in the form of regular recurring meetings. 

Usually, the product manager or product owner is in charge of leading backlog grooming sessions and ensuring that they are carried out smoothly. Since backlog grooming is not an official ceremony according to the agile method, it’s not uncommon to also see project managers, Scrum Masters, or other team members facilitating the sessions. 

Who should attend backlog grooming sessions?

It’s important that you encourage every department across your organization to participate in backlog grooming sessions. Yet, you don’t want to invite too many collaborators, as the sessions could easily become overwhelming and ineffective when too many ideas and viewpoints are presented. 

The backlog refinement ceremony must be attended by team members with the highest involvement in the product building process:

  • The individual who leads the meeting — product manager, product owner, or someone else.
  • Product managers or other representatives of the product team.
  • Lead engineers.
  • It’s also beneficial to invite members from customer success, support, and QA, as they have valuable user insights related to the inputs in the backlog.

Backlog grooming best practices

Make your product backlog DEEP

Roman Pichler, author of “Agile Product Management with Scrum,” used the acronym DEEP to sum up the essential traits of a good product backlog:

  • Detailed Appropriately — User stories and other items in the product backlog that will be done soon need to be sufficiently well understood by cross-functional teams. Items and initiatives that will not be delivered for a while should be described with less detail.
  • Estimated — Backlog items at the top should include an accurate estimation of the work needed to deliver them. Conversely, items down the backlog should only be roughly estimated as they are not that well understood yet.
  • Emergent — A product backlog changes over time. As you capture new user insights, the backlog will be changed to adapt to customer needs. 
  • Prioritized — The product backlog should be ordered with the most valuable items at the top and the least valuable at the bottom. Every single backlog item is ranked in relation to its business value and alignment with the strategic goal of the company.

Define the shared qualities across all backlog items

The Scrum Guide suggests a clear set of qualities for your backlog items:

  • Description — what’s the main objective of the product backlog item.
  • Value — the business value of the item, as determined by the person who runs the backlog grooming process.
  • Order — the asset priority level of the item.
  • Estimate — the estimated effort required to complete the item as defined by the product delivery team.

It may take some experimentation before you determine the best set of backlog item qualities to track, and you don’t necessarily need to use the ones defined by scrum guidelines. With a product management platform like productboard, you can always define your own set of custom attributes and criteria to score and prioritize items.

Categorize backlog items for better organization

Some of the items and initiatives that could be listed in a product backlog include:

  • User stories.
  • Feature specifications.
  • Feature requests.
  • Bugs.
  • User insights and feedback.

A common mistake in backlog grooming is adding all of these inputs into a single backlog list without any categorization. It’s critical that you split your development backlog from your product backlog and your insights backlog, and make sure each item is labeled correctly. This will not only keep your backlog less cluttered but also speed up your backlog grooming sessions.

Come prepared to backlog grooming sessions

There are a few key things that everyone should revisit before a backlog grooming meeting:

  • Understand the value of the features that you’re going to advocate for. How do they align with the product roadmap and the long-term strategy of the company?
  • Consider your stakeholders. How does the feature align with the priorities of stakeholders? Make sure to engage with the stakeholders on a regular basis and keep their interests in mind.
  • Consider your customers. Does the strategic direction of the items in the backlog align with your customer personas? It’s worth revisiting your customer personas before the backlog grooming sessions. 

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