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Jan 13, 2022

Backlog Grooming: The 2022 Checklist

Enzo Avigo

"The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit"

proclaims legendary a16z venture capitalist Marc Andreesen.

Businesses are always constrained by their limited resources: it is of vital importance to focus on finding a version of your product with just enough features to answer the pressing needs of a big market.

And that includes building just the right things―keeping your product backlog clean and tidy and relevant at all times using the practice known as backlog grooming. This article teaches you how June gives you the tools to do just that, simply and efficiently.

What Is A Product Backlog

A product backlog is a set of to-do lists used in agile project management to drive product development.

The agile manifesto is summed up in four tenets:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Each task on the to-do list is a requirement written in the form of a user story following the format “As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >”. The format allows all stakeholders, technical or not, to follow along the product development process.

(User stories aren't necessarily the best way to structure the problems you're solving, but at least they're speaking to everyone, so I'm using them as a reference in this article).

Consequently, the agile backlog is the central tool to enable smooth collaboration between all project stakeholders and fast reaction time to market changes. To create a product backlog, its content and shape vary depending on the sort of agile methodology being practiced―scrum, kanban, extreme programming, and lean startup being the most widely known.

A product backlog example from the Scrum institute:

Your agile backlog doesn’t have to be like this of course, and it doesn’t have to be the property of a single person: a simple collaborative to-do list hosted on Trello, Notion, or Google Docs can do the trick.

What Is a DEEP Product Backlog?

Knowing what a good product backlog should look like is vital to getting the best. The acronym DEEP is often used to describe the characteristics of a good product backlog. We go into more detail below.

Detailed

A good product backlog should be as detailed as possible. This gives everyone on the team an idea of the product's direction. However, not all items on the product backlog should be written with the same level of detail.

For example, items at the top of the product backlog should have more detail than those at the bottom. This is because you may not have a complete picture of the direction the feature should take, and they can continually be updated as you get more information.

Emergent

Great product managers know that a product is never completed. Customers want new features, the business landscape could change, and a competitor could add a game-changing feature. A good product backlog recognizes this and changes accordingly.

Estimated

Product backlog items should be accompanied by an estimate of how long it will take to build. The product owner needs to understand the labor involved in making a specific feature and estimate accordingly.

Prioritized

The product backlog should have a prioritized list of features or changes. However, not all items possess the same level of importance, and the product backlog should reflect this.

Features of a Product Backlog

When creating a product backlog, some of its key features include grooming user stories, proposed changes, and defects to be fixed.

Note: User stories describe a software feature from the eyes of the customer. It captures the customer’s needs and why they need it. June offers several templates to help you understand how a product works and the number of active users.

Why Use a Product Backlog?

There are several benefits to using a product backlog. We discuss a few of them below.

Improves Productivity

A product backlog outlines new features that a business plans to roll out in order of importance, depending on product usage indicated by your key metrics.

When companies adhere to a product backlog, the result is that they release features that they have identified as necessary for their users.

However, in the absence of a system that discloses what should be worked on at any given time, businesses may work on several features simultaneously but fail to release any.

Ensures Everyone Is on the Same Page

Regardless of the size of your team, everyone must be on the same page. While businesses could have several objectives simultaneously, they may be unable to pursue them at once. Consequently, a product catalog can serve as a roadmap that lets everyone know the priority at any point.

Enhances Stakeholder Engagement

You want all relevant stakeholders to be aware of your plans for a product, and a product backlog helps with this. Also, it ensures that product initiatives appear in an orderly manner. While a product backlog has its uses, it could pose some challenges when not correctly utilized. Additionally, update a product backlog frequently to reflect its current state and changes in line with project goals. It is also crucial to ensure that all team members agree with product decisions.

What Is Backlog Grooming: Backlog Refinement Vs Grooming

Product backlog grooming is a product backlog review to remove bloat, assess the relevance of each item, and refine them.

It’s always wise to retire from the daily grind to take a global view of the situation you are in. Backlog grooming sessions are key moments to make sense of what you develop and prepare the next steps.

Once again, the agile methodology you use will probably create slight variations in the way you conduct your agile grooming session. The following article describes a typical scrum grooming session.

Wait, isn’t backlog grooming dead? Backlog grooming vs refinement

Agile practitioners now prefer using the term backlog refinement, which better illustrates the idea behind the practice. But in general, there are many other ways to keep your product backlog clean and tidy before a sprint―however you decide to name it, what matters is to create working software with user stories relevant to the needs of the market.

What is sprint grooming in agile?

Sprint grooming is another synonym for agile backlog refinement.

Purpose of Backlog Refinement

Backlog refinement serves 3 key purposes:

  • Sprint planning vs grooming - In the agile methodology, a sprint is a fixed time period in which a subset of the product backlog is picked and developed to improve the product. Sprint results are then analyzed and worked upon to improve the whole organization’s workflow. Product grooming makes sprint planning more efficient by preventing scope creep and reducing meeting duration.

  • Cross-communication - Grooming sessions improve the team’s understanding of the project by providing a space to look at things through a strategic lens. Reminding stakeholders of the bigger picture―what the company stands for and how the project fits in the vision―cultivates meaning, the social need to contribute to something greater than oneself, leading to higher trust, higher team engagement, and increased productivity.

  • Risk management - The better your product backlog fits the needs of the users, the less risk you have for the company to collapse. Refined backlogs decrease the risk for unmet deadlines while increasing sprint speed.

Product backlog grooming helps to keep teams aligned with the overall product direction. However, with numerous and frequent changes desired by users, it is easy to overlook some features that were initially included in the product backlog. Agile backlog grooming provides teams with an opportunity to reassess their priorities based on evolving trends in data. Backlog grooming also enables teams to move on from grooming user stories that are no longer relevant.

Backlog Grooming Checklist: 9 Steps For An Efficient Backlog Grooming Session

Pick a facilitator

Someone should be chosen to organize and facilitate the meeting. This is usually the product owner‘s responsibility, but anyone familiar with the different stakeholders and the grooming methodology can do it really.

A good facilitator makes sure the process goes smoothly, and that everybody’s voice gets heard and taken into account for the final decision.

Pre-meeting: Define clear goals

Effective meetings don’t happen in a vacuum. You know the drill:

  • Write up an agenda briefly explaining what is a grooming session and the scrum backlog grooming process. You can use this article to guide you.
  • Agile refinement sessions should happen right before your next sprint to maximize the accuracy of your estimates
  • Make sure the tool you use for your backlog is ready―whether it is a whiteboard, a simple Google Doc, or a dedicated app.
  • Send invites to the product development team. Skill diversity is key to get a better grasp of what to build next, but you also don’t want too many people to keep the meeting short.
  • Most importantly, do your homework: remember your business goals and the strategic objectives, and obtain your latest reports containing your key performance indicators. June can help you automate product analytics reports that can come in-handy later on, as you will see later on.
  • Talk to your stakeholders beforehand to come with a clear picture of the product’s situation. Your users, but also your team members, whether they will attend the meeting or not.

Ensure An Efficient Backlog Grooming Meeting

Having a facilitator and a timekeeper makes sure the meeting will proceed just right. Facilitation can be tricky―remember it’s not only about the product, it’s also about the team: you want everyone’s input to be taken into account, fairly and efficiently. If people talk over each other or if voices are under-represented, the whole company will suffer for it:

  • Proceed item per item: keep the discussion centered on a single topic. If some items are redundant, wait for their turn to process them.
  • Start with a round of questions that will help develop everyone’s understanding of the item. Participants raise their hands to ask questions or answer them.
  • Go on with a round of reactions. This is the phase where product decisions are taken (see the following checklist items to get a breakdown). Obtaining a consensus can be tedious, so aim for everyone’s consent instead: if the proposal has no objection, validate it. Otherwise, work together to include the objection in the final decision.

Categorize

Product backlogs regroup a multitude of artifacts: features, bugs, non-functional requirements (accessibility, performance, etc.), feedback… each with their own characteristics.

Attributing categories to each user story is a simple trick to ease the grooming process. When well done, organized product backlog can easily turn into theme-based roadmap.

Source: ProdPad

User story grooming: remove user stories

The first decision to take is whether or not you should be grooming user stories entirely. A simpler product with fewer features is easier to mantain, easier to market, and should increase your return-on-investment, so don’t hesitate to cut what doesn’t fit.

You can use June’s feature audit report to remove unused features:

Or the power user report to assess whether some feedback is relevant to your target audience or not:

Estimate user stories

By definition, a user story should never take longer than a sprint to complete. But it’s also difficult to estimate the duration of a story when there are so many variables to take into account.

The traditional agile way to go about this problem is to assign a number of points to each story, representing the difficulty level: 1 is easy, 10 is an order of magnitude harder. You can then sum the points at the end of a sprint and see what’s realistic for your team to handle for the next one.

Do keep in mind there are many ways to go about estimating duration, however. Find one that works for you and keep it simple: don’t estimate more than a week worth of work to reduce your margins for errors. ️

Refine user stories

Some stories might become too big to fit in a single sprint. That’s when you want to break them down into simpler ones. It will not only make it easier to estimate their duration, but also to develop them.

To keep the backlog refinement session as lean as possible, detail each user story appropriately: spend more time on writing fine-grained user stories that have the highest priority, but don’t overthink the ones that are unlikely to fit in the next sprint.

For feedback or bug items, it’s also the opportunity to create new user stories in response to the needs formulated by stakeholders.

Reprioritize user stories

Lastly, the priority of each user story should be re-discussed to fit the new circumstances. Bad priorities will make sprint planning take longer than necessary while impacting the company’s overall productivity.

Several prioritization models can be put to profit: Kano, MoSCoW, or the 100 dollar test, among others.

Take the MoSCoW model, for example. Each user story is given one of the following labels: must have (Mo, the user story is essential to the completion of the product), should have (S, the user story is important but not mandatory), could have (Co, the user story is nice to have but unimportant), or won’t have (W, the user story should be removed).

The decision should be data-driven to remove unnecessary debates. This is the moment where the result of your retention analysis can come in handy, for example.

Who Should Attend Backlog Grooming Sessions and How Long Should It Last?

You need the expertise of every relevant team member to have an effective sprint backlog grooming session. That said, it is crucial that you only have those who are needed at the meeting. Inviting too many stakeholders will lead to numerous ideas that may make it difficult to reach a consensus.

Invite a Facilitator

There should be someone to facilitate the session, ideally the product manager or product owner. However, a project manager or product owner can take charge of your agile grooming session. The delivery team and quality assurance team should also be represented.

Keep It Brief

Furthermore, there is no set time for your scrum grooming session. However, it should be kept brief, usually between 45 minutes and an hour. While this might seem like a short time to be spent on such an important task, you could achieve so much by encouraging participants to prepare beforehand.

Additionally, you can assign time limits for user story grooming and inform every participant of the backlog grooming agenda.

Defining the Frequency

The frequency of a backlog grooming session is also determined by the length of your sprints.

For example, if your sprint cycle is one month, you can run backlog grooming sessions every other week. Ultimately, the frequency lies with your team and what works best.

In planning for the time spent on product grooming vs. planning, you must remember that both activities serve different purposes.

While backlog grooming is an opportunity to discuss product backlog items, sprint planning is where teams agree on the direction of a sprint or sprint backlog.

Product Backlog Prioritization

The average software development team has numerous projects to work on, and product backlog prioritization plays a vital role in keeping them on track. We often pick or drop tasks or projects to work on in our personal life because we have limited time. In the same way, product backlog prioritization is done because there isn't always enough time for teams to work on every idea they have.

Therefore, only the most important is given priority. A sprint grooming meeting helps to identify the product backlog items that should be worked on during the next sprint.

  • Backlog prioritization allows teams to outline the most important objectives at a specific time. This activity should be done frequently for maximum results.
  • Analyze potential outcomes. When deciding on what product backlog item to work on, product teams should often consider how it could affect users and whether it makes business sense to add it. Analyze potential outcomes in user retention and revenue growth before executing on the task.
  • Consider the ease with which they could add a feature.
  • Backlog prioritization helps businesses roll out features that provide value to users, leading to more value for the company. Teams can also be more productive since they only work on the most pressing issues at any given time. June provides actionable analytics to keep track of progress and the outcome of your product decisions.

Wrapping up

Agile story grooming ensures the quality of the backlog items. They each have a clear description, duration estimate, and priority, aligned with your business goals.

From there, make sure to follow-up with your stakeholders to stay transparent about the process and keep people involved and motivated about the direction the product is taking.

Use June to help with your agile backlog grooming

Efficient agile refinement is informed by data. This is why you should use June to obtain beautiful product reports your team and customers can collaborate on. It’s also incredibly easy to use: just connect your Segment account and we will automate everything for you, ready for the next refinement session.

The best part? It’s free, so get started now :)

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