Doing What It Takes to Refine the Backlog

By Zach Chapman - August 13, 2019

Doing What It Takes to Refine the Backlog
August 13, 2019 By Zach Chapman

Doing What It Takes to Refine the Backlog

The Agile product backlog evolves over time. You begin a project with a list of features, all varying in size and level of detail. As time goes by, items with the highest priority move to the top. The items and features get additional detailing and proper sizing within the Sprint. This process of refining the backlog is a core part of Scrum.

The Product Backlog Iceberg

refine the product backlog

Think of the product backlog like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the current Sprint. At the tip, tasks are small and manageable and you generally have high visibility as you proceed through the Sprint.

As you move towards the water level, you begin to lose sight of the smaller details of the iceberg as the size expands. If the tip of the iceberg is the Sprint, then reaching the water is a particular Release. Below the water are low priority items, or what will come in future releases. You prioritize, refine and size the features as Sprints arise.

Evolution of the Product Backlog

Be aware that the product backlog will evolve over time. It will feel uncomfortable at first, not knowing the details of all the features. However, the items below the waterline in the iceberg example lack importance. It is vital to focus on the items above the water. Know them inside and out for sizing and definition purposes, prior to final development.

Things will change with a product backlog. You may have items below the waterline one month, only to find that things change in the business or information technology landscape. Stakeholders may ask you to bring those items above the water, moving others down in importance.

Planning for Change

Over the course of any Agile project, features of high importance become less so. Items that may have been secondary could become the top priority for immediate delivery. Acknowledging and embracing the change is central to Scrum and succeeding with the methodology. You will never define all product requirements upfront.

Refinement of the Backlog is a Constant Task

Refinement of the product backlog should be an ongoing task. As the highest priority items make their way into a Sprint for development, they come right off the top of the product backlog, the tip of the iceberg. You define and size these items for development within a given Sprint. Once the items come off the product backlog they should be replaced. A great rule of thumb is to spend a fraction of time, roughly 10% of your time in any given Sprint, refining the backlog and preparing for future Sprints.

The iceberg loses its tip if you do not know the next highest priority items to come. Talking through what is to come next, and thinking a Sprint or two ahead, can help ensure your iceberg has its tip. Reshaping and refining the product backlog provides clarity for everyone.

Team Effort

It is a team effort to refine the product backlog and figure out the highest priority items. You need involvement from stakeholders, members of the Agile Development Team, and all necessary resources. Refining the product backlog is all about ensuring the iceberg has shape and the tip of it contains all of the highest priority items. Being aware of this constant reshaping over time allows for that backlog to be ready from one Sprint to the next.

At ClearlyAgile we offer a variety of training and certification programs, as well as project kickoff consultation. We guide you through various activities like story mapping and feature buying to help seed and prioritize your product backlog. Contact us today to learn more!