How to Clean the Backlog

Agile, specifically Scrum, is all about incremental improvement.  It is about delivery value continuously, in small chunks so that stakeholders, customers get what they want, faster.  One of the ways to do that is to have a Backlog that is relevant, and up-to-date.  If you, as an Agile squad, are working off of an old Backlog, you lose value very quickly.  You want to stay on top of your Backlog, and that is going to involve cleaning it regularly.  Routine cleaning of the Backlog helps ensure the right User Stories get the prioritization they deserve, and the User Stories themselves are still the most valuable, representing the wants and needs of the customer.  Let us go through steps to clean up the Backlog.


The Initial Product Owner Review

 How to clean a backlog

One of the best first steps to cleaning up the Backlog is to have the Product Owner review everything within it.  The typical habit is that you keep adding to the Backlog.  In some cases it is necessary and beneficial to delete User Stories from the Backlog. Chances are, what was valuable six-months ago in the Backlog may not be spot-on accurate today.

The Product Owner should review the Backlog in totality.  He or she is going to look for User Stories for removal possibilities as they may no longer be wanted.  Though it is straightforward to leave everything in the Backlog, moving them down in priority, deleting them can help ensure there is no waste on something that lacks value.


Organize the Backlog

Once the Product Owner does the review of the Product Backlog, it is time to assess the full inventory of it as well.  How many User Stories do you have?  If you are very high up there in numbers, over 500 items or so, you will want to try and group these.  See if you can arrange them based on the overall functionality.  That way, when you look to prioritize the Backlog, you can do it by group rather than trying to figure out if User Story 400 is more critical then user Story 405.

There are multiple ways to organize the Backlog, and you will want familiarity with the software you are using to execute.  Jira, a common tool used by Agile squads, lets you use Labels, Components, as well as other features to organize or group features.  When you use the power of software such as this, you can quickly get a snapshot view of a group of User Stories without having to try and review everything at once.  Compartmentalize to allow for more natural assessment and value delivery.


Prioritization Time

The process of deleting User Stories no longer needed and organizing the Backlog brings you to the prioritization stage.  The Product Owner has to be doing this as they have the best line of sight into what customers and stakeholders want.  The Product Owner will have a grasp of just how valuable the User Story or feature is.  They will be able to compare one to the next accurately.

It is not just about value though.  The Product Owner also has to think about the cost of executing on specific features, the risk associated with delivering a functionality at a particular time.

When the Product Owner goes through the work to prioritize the Backlog, they have to be thinking about value first and foremost.  The goal should be to end up with a Backlog that is easy to understand, prioritized, and ready for execution by the Agile squad.


Deliver Value via Cleaning

Cleaning up a Backlog isn't fun and may seem daunting but staying organized is critical.  Agile and Scrum are big on eliminating waste and making sure everything that is done, has value top of mind.  Value is going to be derived by merely removing items that do not have value.  If you get rid of an old feature in the Backlog that is not relevant, you avoid the team wasting time and developing it, when others are more important.  Clean the Backlog, stay on top of it, and value can be brought forward that much easier.