Why Product Managers should never skip refining their backlog9 min read

Although not exclusive to software development, Agile methodologies such as Kanban and, most notoriously, Scrum, have popularised the term “backlog” in the past two decades. However, a backlog is nothing more than a collection of tasks that need to be worked on. Therefore, a simple grocery shopping list or a sum of future product development features are both examples of a backlog.

A special case: the backlog in Scrum

Scrum. The hero to many. The villain to some. This methodology has been applied in so many companies, albeit badly in most cases, that it has become one of those polarising frameworks that companies use to help developers work on what’s most important in an efficient way.

Although you probably know what Scrum is by now, I’ll quickly summarise what Scrum is in case you’ve been working with Kanban or Waterfall until now.

A (very quick) summary of what Scrum is

Scrum is a way of building software whose main goal is to help developers work efficiently on what is most important. Scrum is based on the following principles:

  1. Developers work in “sprints”: sprints are chunks of time where ideally developers know what to work on and priorities, tasks and timing don’t change. The most popular sprint is the two week sprint (ten working days)
  2. Developers work with “tickets”: anything that must be done is broken down into the smallest task possible, and this task is assigned to a “ticket” so it can be clearly identified, prioritised and accessed.
  3. Tickets have a dynamic status: tickets are labelled depending on their progress, e.g. to do, in progress, blocked or done. This helps everyone identify their current status at a glance,
  4. There are different boards where tickets go to: tickets are worked on or not depending on which board they’re in. These boards will depend on your actual workflow. The most common boards are:
    • the backlog, where tickets are waiting to be worked on.
    • the sprint board, where tickets are being worked on.
    • the parking lot, where tickets are left to rot until they become important again.
  5. Scrum ceremonies: there are 5 different ceremonies:
    1. Daily stand up, where developers address what they’re working on to the rest of the team
    2. Backlog refining, where the team clarifies the complexity, priority and aim of all the tickets that need to be worked on
    3. Sprint planning, where the team decides what they’re going to work on in the next sprint
    4. Sprint review, where the team showcases to their stakeholders what they’ve been working on in the last sprint
    5. The retrospective, where developers address any issues they might have had at the end of the sprint to try to avoid them from happening again.
Jared explaining what Scrum is in Silicon Valley s01e05
Jared explaining what Scrum is in Silicon Valley s01e05

Now that you know what Scrum is about, let’s see why I think that backlog refining is the most important of all Scrum ceremonies.

The importance of having a refined backlog

To highlight the importance of refining your backlog, I’m going to use an example that most of us are familiar with: moving houses. This project seems to always follow Parkinson’s law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

1. An ungroomed backlog leads to chaos and stress in the team

Whether it’s in your personal to-do list or in a team’s backlog, having a collection of unestimated, unclear and unprioritised tasks takes a toll on even the most chaotic person.

The time has come and you’re about to start moving houses. Your partner has asked you to come up with a list of things that you both need to do. You start typing things as they come to your mind:

Using Todoist, my favourite to-do list app, to create the moving backlog

After typing for a while, you stop and take a look at what you’ve written. Then you realise: this is going to be a stressful and long process! But hey, there’s plenty of time for it so everything will be okay, right?

Then you show the list to your partner: “Glass? What did you mean by glass?” “Good question”, you reply. “And pack?” “Well, I guess I meant packing?”

What started as a friendly conversation just turned into a stressful argument. But hey, not all is lost because this action of reviewing your list with someone else is the first step to refine your backlog.

You and your partner start clarifying and completing the list so that you both know what needs to be done:

Grouping tasks in Todoist is extremely easy

David Allen, in his masterpiece Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity, calls this the “Clarify” step, and it’s arguably the most important in the whole GTD workflow.

2. Having unestimated tickets in the backlog makes it difficult to foresee and prevent issues

Having clarified everything that needs to be done, you now face the following problem: how long will all this take?

In order to plan properly, you set to give an estimation to all these tasks. But here’s the thing: we humans are terrible at estimating how long things will take, but quite accurate at estimating how complex something will be.

Personally, I like to use t-shirt sizes as an estimation for Kanban projects and story points for Scrum projects. I’ll write why in a future blog post but, for now, let’s use the t-shirt size in our example.

I use labels in Todoist to estimate tasks

The beauty of estimating is that it makes you visualise yourself actually doing the task, so things that you previously didn’t consider come up that wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, visualising yourself packing everything into boxes reminds you that you will need duct tape in order to close them, so you add it to the list. If you hadn’t done this exercise, you might have forgotten to buy it and, as a result, start packing without it, which would lead to you having to unnecessarily and angrily go back to the shop.

3. An ungroomed backlog is never prioritised

Prioritising is extremely important in Product Management. Without setting proper priorities to your projects and tasks, the important things might not get done. It is the Product Manager’s job to do this, since the PM is the one with the overall vision: stakeholders, development team, end user.

You can write any number of things you want in a to-do list but, as we all know, some things will inevitable remain undone. Therefore, it’s critical to focus on the most important ones and do these ones. In other words, as Jocko Willink and Leif Babin would say in their book Extreme Ownership: prioritising and executing.

Assigning priorities in Todoist cannot be easier

Once you have all your tasks prioritised, it is easy to order them by their importance and start working on them accordingly.

4. An ungroomed backlog makes planning extremely difficult to plan the sprint

The sprint planning. The decisions taken in this ceremony are crucial if you want your team to be efficient, effective and, most importantly, happy. It will also determine the success of both your team and your company, since working on the right things at the right time is essential to achieve your company goals.

Let’s assume you haven’t clarified, estimated and prioritised your tasks. How would you choose what to work on? Based on urgency probably. Or based on whichever task you feel the most like doing. Where does this lead to? Stress.

But we know better and, now that we have estimated the complexity (and, as a result, how much things could potentially take) and prioritised our to-do list for our moving houses project, choosing what to do and when is infinitely easier than if we hadn’t.

Adding due dates in Todoist is easy as pie

5. Ungroomed backlogs lead to issues that could be avoided and prevents important problems to surface in the retrospective

Being highly useful but sometimes overlooked, the retrospective helps the team understand what went wrong and how to avoid this from happening again.

Unfortunately, the stress generated by an ungroomed backlog can lead to unnecessary friction between team members, derived from lack of clarity in tickets, not having priorities clear…

Unnecessary tension can arise

All these issues can mask more important issues within the team, like excessive micromanagement or insecurities, which should be identified and tackled to avoid toxicity within the team.

Conclusion

If you are struggling in your daily life, both personally and professionally, to get the right things done in a stress-free manner, start by refining your backlog. Take the time to do this and you will be amazed by how much clearer everything seems to be, how productive your become and, most importantly, how easier it is to work stress-free.

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