The primary goal of backlog grooming, also known as backlog refinement, is to maintain an updated backlog and ensure all items are ready for the upcoming sprints.
Backlog grooming is a critical process for product development teams and offers several benefits to the entire organization:
- Promotes team alignment and cross-collaboration
- Ensures stories meet the Definition of Ready
- Makes it easier for the product owner to set priorities
- Exposes unwanted or unnecessary stories
- Exposes unknown complexities & dependencies
- Improves efficiency of the sprint planning process
Here are nine tips to consider for your next backlog refinement session.
1. Eliminate Unwanted Stories
It’s easy to transform a product backlog into a catch-all for ideas that never materialize. User stories without a clear purpose or definition make the product backlog harder to manage. De-prioritize user stories that you don’t plan to implement in the next 2-3 sprints. Eliminate user stories that add little or no value to the product. Also, work with the product owner to identify which stories are a must-have vs. nice-to-have. You may be surprised by the number of user stories that don’t survive this simple check. This process ensures important requirements are more visible and appropriately prioritized so that the team can focus on the right stories during sprint planning.
2. Divide User Stories
Shorter user stories make your backlog more manageable and easier for developers to implement the required features. Look for alternate flows within the user story. When identifying the main workflow or happy path, separate the alternate flows into different user stories. Look for exceptions that can become separate user stories.
3. Update Estimates
As the team progresses through the backlog refinement session, it is important to review the estimates and check if they require an update. Remember that nobody expects your first estimate to be 100% accurate. Review and update your estimates when new requirements show up or when you gain a better understanding of expectations.
On some occasions, user stories may be too complex to estimate. Nonetheless, you can still gather the team and work to build the best estimate possible based on what is known at that time. This will serve as a starting point that will benefit future sessions. Don’t be surprised if the team finds a new innovative way to solve a problem while trying to create the initial estimate.
4. Add New Work Items
Do not be afraid of adding new relevant work items to a product backlog. Consider new user stories the result of a very productive refinement session. This is normal and, on many occasions, expected (for example, when the team evaluates alternatives to implementing user stories.) There are other times when new user stories are just a byproduct of splitting existing user stories. When adding new user stories to the backlog, be on the same page as your product owner. The objective of backlog refinement is not to reduce the number of user stories. However, be cautious and don’t forget tip #1.
5. Keep the List Short
A good backlog refinement session discusses only a small set of user stories. Therefore, there is no need to review the entire backlog every session as it is overly time-consuming and unnecessary. Instead, focus on stories expected to go into development within the next couple of sprints.
6. Adapt on the Go
If a user story is re-prioritized and becomes a low priority, there is no point in discussing it. Use the time wisely and move to the next story on the agenda. On the other hand, if another user story becomes urgent, prioritize it accordingly in the discussions to “groom it .” Sometimes user stories cannot start due to dependencies, so it is important to pay close attention to dependencies during the grooming session.
7. Keep the List of Attendees Short
When it comes to attendance, be sure that all relevant members of the team are present. This includes the product owner, anyone who may be involved in implementing the user story, and anyone who can add value in clarifying the requirements. There is no need to involve the entire team if everyone doesn’t provide value in the conversations.
8. Know When to Move On
Knowing when to stop is a key element of an effective backlog grooming session. Keep at hand your team’s definition of ready and watch the evolution of the user story in discussion. Verify if it complies with the INVEST principle and drive the conversation towards the missing elements. When you achieve this, it’s time to move to the next story.
Image inspiration: digitalskillsmastery
9. It’s Okay to Seek Additional Time
Keep in mind that backlog refinement is a process and not a task. Just because a user story is selected to be refined doesn’t mean it will be fully refined that day. It’s common for the product owner to need time to obtain clarification from other subject matter experts. Owning the product does not mean knowing all the answers.
As you consider the above tips, don’t forget the agile principle to ‘keep things simple .’ These tips aim to provide guidance and are not prescriptions. Every product development effort is unique and has its own set of nuances, which will help you determine the most effective methods to conduct effective backlog grooming sessions.
Juan Carlos Brown
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