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Backlog Grooming 101: Everything You Need to Know

Sean Osawa, August 9, 2021
backlog grooming 101: everything you need to know

If you are looking to understand the concept, value, and best practices of backlog grooming, then you have come to the right place.

Modern-day agile project management centers around continuous improvement and agility. To sustain both throughout a project lifecycle, an agile team must meet requirements, respond to changes with flexibility, and plan consistently. But since teams work on short development cycles and multiple iterations, it’s impossible to accomplish all tasks in a single sprint.

This is yet to include new requirements that come up during product testing or user stories. Teams that resort to adding last-minute work to an ongoing sprint end up with scope creep, which isn’t an ideal situation. In other words, not all tasks should be completed in the immediate sprints. Some should be kept in view until circumstances are favorable.

Here’s when a backlog and the grooming of it becomes critical.

What Is a Backlog?

A backlog is a prioritized list of items that agile teams need to work on in each sprint to meet business goals.

The items are derived from a product or project roadmap and based on their requirements. So, it pretty much depends on the nature of the business.

For instance, a software development team’s backlog may consist of new features, technical debt, user stories, and bugs. Meanwhile, a marketing team’s backlog may consist of content-related tasks, campaign strategies, and creative deliverables.

What Are the Types of Backlogs?

There are various types of backlogs – again, depending on the nature of the business – but agile teams typically handle two types of backlogs: the product/project backlog and the sprint backlog.

If your team is focused on product development, then you will be building a product backlog, but if project management is more up your alley, then you need a project backlog.

The product/project backlog is where you will load items derived from the roadmap and requirements documentation.

A sprint backlog, on the other hand, is the default backlog that every agile (scrum) team must have. It is where you will load product/project backlog items that are ready to be worked on.

So basically, you move from the product/project backlog to the sprint backlog as both of them are linked through backlog grooming – but what is backlog grooming?

What Is Backlog Grooming?

Backlog grooming is a process where the team meets to review, refine, and prioritize backlog items. Once this is done, high-priority items will then be escalated to the sprint backlog.

Thorough backlog grooming will lead to accurate prioritization. This is key in making sure that the team can work on tasks that deliver the highest value for the upcoming sprint and can meet business goals efficiently.

Effective backlog grooming can also help the team stay aligned with the roadmap and meet the needs of clients as well as stakeholders.

Not to mention, when backlog items are also refined with all the necessary information like specifications on deliverables, the team can deliver quality work that satisfies all the requirements.

In other words, backlog grooming is a lot like housekeeping; teams get rid of irrelevant items, add new ones, and update existing items with the latest information.

This process is also known as backlog refinement or scrum refinement among scrum teams. Do note that there are no key differences between scrum backlog grooming and agile backlog grooming.

You should aim to groom your backlog three-quarters of the way through every sprint so that the backlog is up-to-date and can be streamlined for sprint planning.

Believe it or not, this process is often neglected as teams tend to skip it and focus on sprint planning instead.

How Is Backlog Grooming Different from Sprint Planning?

Sprint planning is the kickoff event of every new sprint or iteration. It focuses on the items that have been logged into the sprint backlog as these are high-value and high-priority items that set the dynamic of the new sprint.

The entire agile team should be involved during the process as it highlights:

  • the scope of the sprint;
  • expectations and requirements;
  • team capacity and commitment;
  • availability of resources;
  • items’ priority levels and estimates.

Sprint planning also answers the following questions:

  • What value can be gained from this sprint?
  • What value can be delivered by this sprint?
  • Are all sprint backlog items clear enough so that teams can start working efficiently?
  • Is the work assigned doable enough within the upcoming sprint?
  • Are there any blockers that the team may face?
  • How will the team get the work done?

Since sprint planning focuses on the items that have been logged in the sprint backlog, the need for backlog grooming is even more evident.

If you go into sprint planning with the product/project backlog items still unrefined, unreviewed, and unprioritized, then sprint planning can go on for hours on end, reducing the productivity of the entire team.

A few key points to remember here:

  1. Backlog grooming is performed before sprint planning. In fact, it is done before a sprint is completed to give enough time for the project managers and product owners to add new items (e.g., new feature requests, urgent deliverables, new initiatives) before the start of a new sprint.
  2. Backlog grooming is key as it significantly improves sprint planning. It makes sprint planning much easier because items loaded in the sprint backlog have been refined thoroughly.
  3. A successful sprint planning comes with a regulated backlog grooming meeting.

How Is Backlog Grooming Done?

Now, let’s dive a little deeper into backlog grooming execution. The process is relatively easy once you understand the key actions involved.

Key Actions in Backlog Grooming

Review

Review the product strategy along with business goals that you want to achieve to ensure that current backlog items are well aligned with them. Whether you’re performing product backlog grooming or project backlog grooming, it’s good to keep in mind that your backlog shouldn’t be swamped with too many items. Especially if these items are derived from goals and strategies that are due multiple sprints ahead.

Refine

Refine your backlog items with as much information as you can to provide clear context to the team who will be taking on the work. It’s important that data such as deliverable specs, due date, instructions, and requirements are stated properly for each item. Refining also means breaking down big items and initiatives into smaller, more doable tasks. You need to be realistic when distributing workload.

Prioritize

Assign accurate prioritization to your backlog items to help you decide if they are worth escalating to the sprint backlog. The standard prioritization levels are high, medium, and low. But you can adjust these to better fit your team’s operations. To prioritize accurately, consider factors like ship value, urgency, business goals, stakeholders’ interests, and product/project strategy.

Estimates

Adding estimates or story points to give “weight” to tasks is an important key action when grooming your backlog. This information is critical in communicating the amount of effort or resources that a task will take up within the upcoming sprint. You can’t always estimate accurately but you can add a very realistic figure if your items are broken down into smaller units of work.

People Involved in the Process

For project development:

  • Project managers
  • Project owners
  • Team managers
  • All team players (optional)

For product development:

  • Product managers
  • Product owners
  • Developers
  • Team managers
  • All team players (optional)

The Tools Required to Groom Backlogs

Excel sheets

Excel is suitable for companies that are slowly maturing digitally. This is one of the most basic tools that’s immediately available to everyone. The only downside is you need to build your backlogs from scratch, and the grooming process tends to be more manual than streamlined.

Dedicated product roadmap tools

There are a lot of vendors offering specific project management capabilities like dedicated product roadmap tools. These solutions help organizations map out product development plans and marketing strategies. Most comprehensive tools offer visual goal tracking features and the ability to prioritize tasks.

Issue and project tracking tools

One of the most prominent issue and project tracking tools in the market is Jira. The software provides convenience for agile teams through readily available project planning and product development features, all the way to reporting. You can manage as many projects/products as you want, and your backlogs will automatically be created for you.

Third-party backlog grooming app

Third-party backlog grooming apps are great for project managers that need a speedy way to groom their backlogs. They’re automated and specifically designed to support agile teams during scrum refinements. If you’re already using Jira, then an app like Excel-like Issue Editor might be worth a try.

Best Practices for Effective Backlog Grooming

Below we have rounded up a helpful list of eleven important habits to adopt for effective backlog grooming:

  1. Have a ‘Definition of Ready’ prepared to help guide you and your teams towards deciding on backlog items that are fit enough for the sprint backlog.
  2. Involve the right people in your backlog grooming session so that every decision made is transparent and understood.
  3. Arrange backlog items based on how ready they are for the sprint backlog and how much value they deliver to help with accurate prioritization.
  4. Break down big tasks that require multiple development efforts into smaller units of work for better workload management.
  5. Improve prioritization and collaboration by defining the dependencies between items.
  6. Gather and display the requirements and acceptance criteria (if any) for items with high priority.
  7. Enrich prioritized items with adequate information to provide clarity and context.
  8. Add items for upcoming work or new initiatives to the backlog and groom them accordingly.
  9. Remove items that are no longer relevant to the business goals and roadmap.
  10. Estimate items by discussing the weight of the work with all team members.
  11. Leverage a grooming tool to improve the grooming process if necessary.

Backlog Grooming for Project Management Success

Whether you’re managing a project or managing the development of a product, backlog management is critical to your success. It’s a skill worth mastering and a process worth investing in. 

Through backlog grooming or scrum refinement, you will be able to establish realistic expectations for each upcoming sprint; teams will know what is required of them and why the deliverables are significant.

The process also helps you assess and highlight risk or blockers in your product/project management journey. Most importantly, backlog grooming helps you avoid scope creep and keeps you on track for completion.

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sean osawa ricksoft

Sean Osawa

CEO at Ricksoft, Inc., a company developing powerful add-ons to help Atlasssian users improve their productivity and project management capabilities. His deep understanding of agile team needs has pushed him to develop a comprehensive backlog grooming app, Excel-like Issue Editor for Jira, to improve the scrum refinement process for Jira users. Outside of Ricksoft, you can find Sean on a field playing baseball.