Whether you call it backlog refinement or backlog grooming, it’s a crucial task for product managers and their teams. There is always going to be a backlog, but not all items on that backlog are equal. Backlog grooming allows the manager to make sure that there is an appropriate number of items on their backlog list, and that they’re listed in order of priority.
Backlog grooming is not a one-time activity, but one that is regularly revisited and can be scheduled as ongoing in a project, usually by the product owner, product manager and relevant stakeholders.
While the term grooming has gotten a bad name because of its connotation as a digital lure for illegal and immoral purposes, and many product managers prefer to refer to it as refinement or story time, we’re going to stick with the traditional usage. Our usage of the word grooming is intended to reflect an organic approach to maintaining a backlog. Think more of a gardener who is constantly trimming, pruning and caring for their plants.
Backlog Grooming Activities
The process of backlog grooming includes many tasks. Product managers have to balance the needs of their stakeholders, their team and their project objectives. Of course, they need to take into account their resources and the power of their project management tools. Some of the activities required for a healthy backlog are outlined below.
Eliminate and Add User Stories
One of the more basic backlog grooming maneuvers is to get rid of any user stories that no longer appear relevant. These will just get in the way of your progress. However, as some user stories drop off the backlog, others will become important to include. During the project new needs will come up, and in response, those new user stories will have to be added to the backlog.
Related: A Quick Guide to User Story Mapping
Update Priorities and Estimates
At the same time, priorities will change. These must be reflected in the backlog and the listing of the user stories. Therefore, backlog grooming is a regular reassessment of the priority of these user stories. Estimates will also change. These changes must be reflected in the backlog. Times can contract or expand as new information is uncovered, and those changes must be updated regularly.
Splitting User Stories
Also, you want to break down user stories that have gotten larger than they should be, which is called splitting. This is done to those user stories that are of a high priority but too large to fit comfortably in an upcoming iteration.
Why Is Backlog Grooming Important?
Maybe you think all this grooming is more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe you’re a procrastinator that likes to wait til the last minute to get all the tasks lined up for the next sprint. Well, there are certainly benefits to regular backlog grooming, and some of those benefits are touched on below.
Boosts Team Efficiency
The greatest motivation of engaging in backlog grooming is to help teams to continuously push forward and increase overall productivity. Since the user story is already well-defined, these don’t need further discussion. However, sprint planning is important, and a better backlog will help plan for these more efficiently. That doesn’t mean the backlog is weighed down by details, it just needs to be ready for work.
Manages Backlog Chaos
The backlog is constantly being added to, either by the product manager or, depending on your organization, QA testers, developers or other team members. This can lead to a loose and messy backlog. Therefore, backlog grooming is a way to take that seemingly chaotic list and clean it up so that it is a manageable task list that’s easier for the team to use.
Keeps Everyone Updated
Another benefit of backlog grooming is that it’s a way for everyone to see where the product team stands in terms of the different features, projects, bug fixes and improvements. It’s a way to keep transparency among all team members, ensuring that none of them are unaware of the current state of events. With a well-groomed backlog, no one needs to ask another person what’s going on. The less interruptions, the more productive the work.
Delivers New Info
Backlog grooming is also a communications tool. Many people are using the backlog, and so when it’s updated that information is disseminated throughout the team. That means that everyone is on the same page, but it’s also a two-way street. The information teams receive gets feedback and the backlog also captures feedback from customers during live demos.
Tools That Help with Backlog Grooming
To make sure backlog grooming is efficient, it’s best to find the right tools to collect data and share it. Workflow tools, like kanban boards, are a great for collecting and tracking progress.
A kanban board can organize your backlog into columns, such as to do, doing and done, and under each of these columns individual user stories can be collected. This visual tool gives users an at-a-glance understanding of where the work is in terms of the cycle.
Kanban cards can be assigned to teams or team members, progress is tracked, and comments and attachments can be added to collect relevant feedback. These boards can be shared among team members and other people working on the product. Anyone who wants to see the progress can do so also at anytime and anywhere.
Backlog Grooming Best Practices
As noted, backlog grooming is ongoing. Usually, these updates are made during meetings with relevant stakeholders. The product owner will lead the meeting and have everyone look over the existing user stories in order to decide which of them can be taken off the backlog list. User stories can be added at this time, as well, or user stories are split to make them more manageable. Here are some tips to make the progress more effective.
Make it DEEP
Agile advocate Roman Pichler came up with the acronym DEEP, which stands for detailed appropriately, estimated, emergent and prioritized. These describe a well-managed backlog.
“Detailed appropriately” means that higher priority items should have more detail than lower priority ones. Backlog items should be “estimated” to understand the cost to implement. “Emergent” states that the backlog is dynamic and always moving from idea to completed work. “Prioritize” speaks to which item is most important and must be addressed before the others. These are on the top of the list, which moves down to the lowest priority last.
Have Better Meetings
The work of backlog grooming is usually done in a meeting, so conducting those meetings more efficiently makes for a more efficient backlog. Therefore, you don’t always have to invite everyone. The only essential person is the product owner. After that, only invite those who are relevant at the time. If input from others who are not needed at the meeting is required, then get that information before meeting.
Related: How to Run a Great Scrum Meeting
As with any meeting, come prepared. Have an agenda with goals clearly stated and make sure all assembled are aware of what those goals are and how they’re expected to contribute to achieving them. Finally, keep the meeting short. While meetings tend to go long, it’s best to keep it short. Know what must be done, and only meet maybe every two weeks for an hour or two.
Keep Customers in Mind
Backlog grooming must have a lodestar to follow and the guide is always the customer. Think about them as prioritizing the backlog. Customers can be like a rule against which all else is measured. The product is being produced for customers and therefore customers are the destination to always keep in sight.
Sometimes there are user stories or tasks that are not able to start until another is completed. These dependencies, if not identified, can block team members, delay progress and block team productivity. So, be sure to identify any dependencies when backlog grooming.
Have Two Sprints Worth of Stories to Work on
When done with a backlog grooming session there should be two sprints worth of user stories that the team is ready to work on. This way they have enough work to keep them engaged until the next backlog grooming and also work to do if priorities shift.
This advice is good for a myriad of situations, both personal and professional, and however much it’s repeated it always bears further attention. While an agenda with stated goals is critical to smart backlog grooming, that doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. The product owner must keep an open mind and listen to what the team has to say, possibly adjusting as necessary.
In a backlog grooming meeting there will be different opinions, but everyone on the team is working towards creating the best product. They might clash on how to do that, but their motivation is passion and experience. A product owner or manager must keep this in mind and act kindly towards all. Let everyone be heard and respected, but keep the team focused.
Backlog grooming is a way to cut out inefficiencies and work more productively. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software with the features that help product mangers with backlog grooming and more. Kanban boards collect user stories and share them among the team, who can then update their progress anywhere and at anytime to keep everyone working collaboratively. Try it for yourself with this free 30-day trial.