Backlog Refinement: A Quick Guide With Examples


When working in an agile environment, teams take sprints, a short period of time in which you complete tasks. Scrum teams choose this work by looking over their backlog.

The backlog is a prioritized list of deliverables that must be completed during the project. A scrum framework allows teams to execute in agile project management, the backlog is very important and backlog refinement keeps work flowing.

What Is Backlog Refinement?

Product backlog refinement is the process by which the scrum team keeps its backlog in good order. Near the end of a sprint, the scrum team will meet and look over their backlog to make sure it’s ready for the upcoming sprint.

During a backlog refinement meeting, the scrum team and the product owner talk about the top items on the product backlog. The scrum team will have time to ask questions that would be normal for any sprint planning.

Product backlog refinement is obviously not a one-time endeavor, but an ongoing process between the product owner and the development team. It’s a place where they can collaborate to make sure the product backlog is clean and orderly.

That can mean removing outdated user stories and tasks, adding new user stories that come from newly discovered insights or breaking larger user stories into smaller ones. You might reorder the user stories on your backlog, or better describe them to avoid issues later. Assignments and estimates might change and you can identify and remove roadblocks if possible.

You could look at backlog refinement as a means to a mutual understanding between the product owner and the scrum team. This understanding is focused on the product, of course, and what it will or won’t do. Then, you decide the amount of effort necessary to implement, as well as the order to do it.

Project management software is able to capture this product backlog refinement meeting and represent the workflow visually in a kanban board. ProjectManager is a cloud-based work management software that has dynamic kanban boards that have custom workflows and task approval to set who has authority to approve and move tasks forward. And all this is done in real time that is collaborative to the core. Get started with ProjectManager today for free!

ProjectManager's kanban board
Kanban boards from ProjectManager for backlog refinement and sprint planning.—Learn More!

What Is the Purpose of Backlog Refinement?’

The purpose of backlog refinement is to have a product backlog ready for the next sprint. This is done by the scrum team having a chance to ask questions of the product owner.

Some of these questions would likely include:

  • What should we do if the user enters invalid data here?
  • Are all users allowed to access this part of the system?
  • What if A, B or C happens?

These questions are vital to ask before the next sprint, because it gives the product owner an opportunity to answer them. This is especially helpful for questions that require some research and that the product owner will return to answer later.

Keep Your Backlog Tidy

One of the biggest reasons for having product backlog refinement is that it keeps your backlog clean. The backlog can get input from any number of sources. The larger your organization, the more input it might receive. That can lead to a mess of backlog items without any rhyme or reason. Keeping your backlog groomed makes it more efficient.

Backlog refinement also keeps things relevant. You want your product backlog stacked with relevant user stories that are well-documented and prioritized correctly so that they’re of value to your customer and company. Remember, only those items in the backlog will be built but just because it’s on the backlog doesn’t mean it should be executed.

Facilitate Better Collaboration

Keeping the product team updated is another purpose of backlog refinement. Without clarity in the backlog, there can be miscommunication or bad product decisions, either of which is going to hurt the project. Having a backlog refined will support effective communication among the team and keep everyone on the same page in terms of new features, any bugs that have been discovered, user insights, etc.

Finally, backlog grooming helps scrum teams work faster. The better organization and communication that comes with backlog refinement reduces the time product managers and product owners spend planning sprints. This allows scrum teams to work more productively.

Product Backlog Refinement Process

By having a product backlog refinement process you create an outcome that is DEEP, which is an acronym that was made up by Roman Pichler, a product management expert who specializes in digital products and agile practices.

DEEP stands for detailed, emergent, estimated and prioritized. You want more detail for the user stories in your backlog. The adding, changing or removing of items will lead to new insights. Each item on the backlog is estimated and prioritized.

That’s the result of the refinement process. Here are the steps necessary to get there.

Product Discovery

The process by which the product team refines their ideas on the product roadmap by a deeper understanding of what the real user problems are and then working out the best way to resolve them.

Identify Items to Remove

Look over the product backlog and see which user stories points had value once but are no longer relevant and a team member can delete them from the list.

Improve Clarity

Booster communication by adding detail to the preparation and implementation of the items still on your product backlogs, such as constraints, edge cases (issues that occur only at extreme operating parameters) and acceptance criteria.

Breakdown Large Items

Simplify your backlog by taking large user stories that can be broken down into smaller ones and doing so in order to add focus and manageability to your items.

Size Items

Review the product back and make sure no work items have sat there longer than necessary so every item is of value.

Prioritize Items

Determine the order in which your backlog items should be executed and revisit their priority as you gain further details and insights.

Identify Risks

Figure out what risks or obstacles are inherent in the user stories you’re close to implementing and plan how to avoid those issues.

Backlog Refinement Meetings

Before a sprint, the scrum team meets and discusses backlog refinement, which is why it’s often referred to as a backlog refinement meeting. It usually begins with the product owner showing the scrum team what product backlog items need refinement. This opens up a discussion between the product owner and the scrum team. They then decide which user stories are in need of product grooming.

Sprint planning is different from backlog refinement. When sprint planning, the scrum team is working on the priority items from the backlog and focusing on further detailed clarification, lightweight modeling, re-estimation, creating a sprint goal and sprint backlog.

Everyone in the meeting has a role to play. The product owner is responsible for building the right product. Development team members are responsible for executing the item correctly. The scrum master, who guides the process, is there to listen to feedback and offer guidance during the backlog refinement session.

The backlog refinement meeting is essential to any successful product backlog refinement process. It is the product owner who takes the lead in the meeting and while the discussion can often be lengthy it should never go beyond gaining more knowledge on the topic. These discussions should be documented for future use in other backlog grooming sessions.

How ProjectManager Helps With Product Backlog Refinement

ProjectManager is cloud-based work management for hybrid teams that are collaborative to the core and provides a single source of truth that keeps everyone on the product team on the same page. Real-time data helps you make more insightful decisions when in a backlog refinement meeting, which leads to more successful sprints.

Multiple Project Views

Kanban boards are the preferred tool when managing a backlog, but that can be done on a task list, too. People work differently and our tool is designed to accommodate various work styles with multiple project views. Other departments might use the Gantt chart, sheet or calendar to track the project. No matter which view they’re using, the data they’re seeing is current and in real time to keep everyone on the same page.

ProjectManager's task list project view

Get Real-Time Data with Dashboards

Every project view feeds automatically into the live dashboard, which doesn’t require any time-consuming setup as you’ll find in other software. The real-time dashboard captures data and automatically calculates the information to display it in easy-to-read graphs and charts. The product owner can view six project metrics whenever they want to monitor the sprint and remove any roadblocks they find.

ProjectManager's real-time dashboard

Generate Timely Reports

One-click reporting goes deeper into the data and helps the product owner make insightful decisions. Reports on time, tasks and more can all be filtered to show only what you want to see. Then they can be saved as a PDF or printed out and shared with stakeholders to keep them updated on progress.

ProjectManager's status report filter

Email notifications are automatically triggered whenever team members make a comment or an item on the backlog is updated. But you also have in-app alerts so you don’t have to leave your tool to stay updated. This keeps you working on your sprint and adjusting it according to the most current data, which boosts productivity.

ProjectManager is an award-winning hybrid work management software that connects scrum teams as well as everyone else in the organization. It’s one tool that works in an agile, traditional and hybrid environment to keep everyone working together regardless of where they are or how they work. Join the 35,000-plus users at NASA, Siemens and Nestles who are already delivering success with our tool. Get started today for free!