How to use backlog refinement effectively to improve your planning

Learn how to create and keep a refined backlog, and why this is key to project success.

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Backlog refinement can mean the difference between clear action and utter chaos in a project.

This process involves cleaning, prioritizing and clearly documenting the items in your project to-do list. It gives teams information on what is most important to work on and how to actually do it.

Unfortunately, I still have vivid memories of working on teams that did not have a well-defined or refined backlog. The product owner was mostly absent, and the team was working on whatever tickets were easiest or simplest to understand, in no real order, with no rhyme or reason. Some things got fixed, but the product generally stood still in time, with no strategic improvements.

Let’s look into the process of backlog refinement and how it helps drive clarity and success for your team.

The basics of backlog refinement

Backlog refinement, also known as backlog grooming, is the process of reviewing, updating, and prioritizing the backlog; a list of user stories, tasks, or requirements that need to be completed during the project. It’s an important process for agile project and product managers who want to improve their planning.

The nuts and bolts of backlog refinement may vary depending on the agile methodology. For example, in Scrum, the product owner is the one responsible for refining the backlog, with the support of the development team. Conversely, in Kanban, backlog refinement is a shared responsibility of the team. But, anyone who is involved in the project can participate in backlog refinement, including stakeholders and customers.

Also, remember that backlog refinement is a constant, recurring, or iterative process that should be conducted on a regular basis. This may be once a week or once per sprint, depending on the nature of the project or the complexity of the backlog. More frequent sessions of backlog refinement will be necessary for long lists of backlog items.

The outcome is a refined and prioritized backlog that helps the team plan upcoming sprints or iterations more effectively. When executed effectively and maintained consistently, backlog refinement helps teams deliver quality work and keep their projects on track.

How does a backlog support your sprint planning process?

Backlog refinement supports the sprint planning process by providing the development team with clear goals and objectives for each story, which leads to clear goals for the sprint. Specifically, backlog refinement:

  • Helps you break down large projects into achievable goals. The team can more easily get things done when they have an organized list of user stories and tasks.
  • Orders the backlog by priority. This enables your team to work on tasks that add business value at the right time.

In short, backlog refinement is essential to ensuring you’re making real progress toward business goals. It helps teams focus on the most important features or functionalities that will provide the most value to the end user.

Four steps to refine your backlog

Here are four steps to follow to refine your backlog:

1. Set time for synchronous sessions

Schedule a meeting with the development team and stakeholders to conduct synchronous backlog refinement.

I like to schedule backlog refinement sessions on recurrence—always before sprint planning, when the refined backlog is considered for development. This way, I can make backlog refinement part of my project or product team’s regular routines. People love to know what to expect, and building these backlog refinement sessions into the natural pace of work will help people who thrive in routine and prefer predictable schedules.

2. Clarify expectations for pre-work

The task of backlog refinement is best done synchronously but… it requires asynchronous prep to be most effective.

Everyone who’ll participate in the process should review the backlog prior to joining the synchronous session. As the leader of the backlog refinement, set expectations for preparedness and be sure to include links to any relevant items for the team to review.

3. Facilitate the backlog refinement session

Simply hold the meeting!

During the session, lead the team in reviewing the backlog items and assessing their priority and readiness for development or execution. Make sure the team works collaboratively so that stakeholders have a shared understanding of each item in the backlog. The team may break down large items into smaller ones, write more detailed user stories, and estimate the level of effort required to complete each item. Throughout this process, it is normal for teams to add new items to the backlog, delete outdated items, or modify existing items as necessary.

Consider these agenda items to better organize the session:

  1. Set objectives: Ensure everyone understands the intent of the session and what you hope to achieve together.
  2. Assign roles: Everyone in the meeting should understand what they are there to do and what their role is in the refinement process. This includes the facilitator!
  3. Discuss items by priority: Don’t start at the beginning of time or the back of the backlog. Start with the highest-priority items to ensure that the most important items will be ready for execution.
  4. Break down complex items: Break big tasks down into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be executed in no more than two days (this is the scrum guidance). If you have complex tasks in the backlog, work with those who understand the work to break it down into smaller pieces. This will help the team effectively address the tasks both in the refinement phase and in execution and identify notable dependencies.
  5. Define acceptance criteria: Each story or task should include measurable acceptance criteria to help teams identify when the goal of that task or story has been achieved. Ensure the acceptance criteria is clear, concise and testable. Leave nothing to chance!
  6. Estimate stories (optional): In some agile methodologies, tasks or stories are estimated in terms of points, hours, or t-shirt sizes. If your team uses estimation, you can begin this process in the backlog refinement phase, to be confirmed in sprint or iteration planning. Remember, estimation is not transferable between teams because teams all have different definitions of the size and scale of individual tasks.
  7. Review the backlog, again: At the end of the session, review the backlog, starting with the most important items. Ensure all stories or tasks are well-refined and can be delivered in the upcoming time. Any reflections about the process of backlog refinement are well suited to come up in the team’s retrospective.

4. Rinse and repeat

As we mentioned before, backlog refinement isn’t a one-time process. It’s continuous, helping you ensure the project is on track and any new changes are taken into account.

By conducting regular backlog refinement sessions, the development team can ensure they’re working on the most valuable items in the backlog and have a clear idea of what they need to deliver next.

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Seven tips for effective backlog refinement

Knowing the process is essential, but there are also some tips you can keep in mind to help you make the most of the backlog refinement process.

1. Assume positive intent.

If someone isn’t doing what you expected them to do, assume they’re trying their best. Your job is to support them in being successful. Remember, repeating yourself is often part of your role, this includes in backlog refinement.

2. Involve the entire team.

It’s good for the entire team to participate in the backlog refinement process. Each team member can contribute their perspectives, which helps in improving the quality of the backlog. If you are consistently not hearing from specific members, ask directly for their input. Avoid allowing one or a few team members to do the majority of the talking, even if they’re leads or managers.

3. Make the most of disagreement.

Always try to find the best solution, not just for you but for the team. If someone tells you you’ve done it all wrong and you must start over, don’t be ready to dismiss their statement. Disaster movies start with an engineer being ignored. Welcome the dissent and facilitate a discussion about the topic at hand to find a workable solution, even if that means more work for the team.

4. Ask open-ended questions to prompt discussion.

As you facilitate the discussion, it can be tempting to look for concise “yes” or “no” answers. But, this is not the best method to invite collaboration. Instead, ask open-ended questions to prompt more in-depth discussion.

For example, “Can we do this?” could change to “How could we approach this?”. This will begin a conversation about how to make it work rather than prompting a yes or no answer.

5. Set a time limit and leverage a parking lot.

Time limits are important to keep people on track and moving toward defined goals. Don’t let conversations go on forever, keep to a timebox. Sometimes people bring up things that are not exactly relevant or required to be solved at the present moment.

Avoid going down the rabbit hole and burning all of your allocated time by using a “Parking Lot.” This is a method to “park” topics until there is time to address them; this will help keep the conversation and team on-task during your backlog refinement session.

6. Document key decisions.

If done well, the backlog refinement session will include changes to tasks or stories and notes about interdependence and opportunities to improve. Document all of this!

Of course, it can be challenging to facilitate and take notes all at once, so consider assigning someone the role of managing documentation of outcomes of the session. You might even consider recording the session if it’s being held online so you can refer to it later (bonus if it's also transcribed!).

7. End with clear next steps.

As you wrap up the session, ensure the next steps are clear and the responsible individuals understand what they are to do next. Clarity is key!

Backlog refinement is often daunting at the beginning

My experience with backlog refinement is that it's often quite a lonely task for a project manager or product owner. This is especially true when trying to onboard an ongoing project or product.

This initiative will usually already have a list of outstanding tasks sitting around, collecting virtual dust. As you enter this space, part of your job is to dust off that list, validate it with the team, and consider it in your new backlog definition and refinement efforts—possibly one of the most daunting tasks there are when you’re trying to get the handle of that new project.

It may take considerable time, but completing this task will greatly help with your onboarding and team organization. Just make sure that everyone on the team understands the importance of backlog refinement and how it can truly be the key to project success.

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