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Backlog Refinement: What is It and Why is It Important?

In the scrum project management methodology, one of the most important things a project manager can do is keep an up-to-date product backlog. That keeps the team focused on what needs to be done and ensures that everyone is always aware of the project’s progress.

At times, the backlog will no longer accurately represent the correct list of things that need to be added to the project, or misrepresent the priority of each task.

Backlog refinement, simply put, is the process of keeping your product backlog up-to-date by adding new items, removing completed items, and organizing everything by priority. It may also involve breaking down large items into smaller tasks.

The goal of backlog refinement is to ensure that the product backlog is always accurate and reflects the current status of the project. This way, the team can stay focused on what needs to be done and avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary tasks.

In this article, we’ll explore the following topics:

Ready to learn everything there is to know about product backlog refinement? Pour a cup of coffee and let’s dive in!

What is scrum framework?

First things first, let’s make sure you understand exactly what is involved in the scrum framework. It is an agile project management methodology that helps teams deliver products in a timely and efficient manner. The scrum framework is based on three simple principles:

Scrum consists of several specific sessions and meetings including sprint planning, which we will explore in more detail later. But for now, it’s important to understand that it is all about collaboration and keeping everyone on the same page.

stick it notes on wall

What is a product backlog?

Within the scrum framework is something called a product backlog. This is essentially a list of items or tasks that need to be added to produce the desired outcome.

For example, if you’re working on a new website, the product backlog may contain tasks such as “research competitors”, “create wireframes” and “develop design mockups”.

The product backlog is maintained by the project manager or product owner and it’s their responsibility to ensure that it remains up-to-date. It can consist of anything from individual tasks, to larger milestones, and everything in between.

For every entry, these key details are included:

  • The item’s title: This is a brief, one-line description of what needs to be done.
  • The item’s description: This is a more detailed explanation of the task, including what needs to be done and why it’s important.
  • The item’s priority: This determines the order in which tasks should be completed. Tasks with a higher priority take precedence over tasks with a lower priority.
  • The estimated effort required: This indicates how long it should take to complete the task.
  • The item’s status: This indicates whether or not the task has been completed.

The product backlog will change as the project progresses. New tasks will be added, old tasks will be removed, and the priority of each task may change. That’s where backlog refinement comes in!

What is backlog refinement?

Importantly, a product backlog is not a static document. It is constantly being changed, updated, and reordered to reflect the reality of the project.

Backlog refinement is the process of keeping your product backlog up-to-date by adding new items, removing completed items, and organizing everything by priority. It follows these steps:

Review the product backlog

The first step in any refinement meeting is to review the product backlog in full, to identify any tasks that are no longer relevant or need further clarification. If the development team doesn’t understand the task, it’s not going to get done no matter what priority is set.

Add new tasks

At each meeting, it is crucial to add new tasks or functions that need to be completed, based on the customer feedback or the results of the latest sprint. These new tasks need to be prioritized and added to the product backlog in an orderly fashion. When adding something to the product backlog, consider the following:

  • What is the full scope of the task?
  • What are the requirements?
  • What are the dependencies?
  • What is the estimated effort required?
  • Is this a one-time task or will it need to be repeated?
  • What problems could the development team run into?

When you’ve answered all of these questions with your team members, it’s ready to be added to the backlog. Remember to include all of the key details listed above.

people working on their respective laptops in one table

Remove completed items

Once you’ve added to the product backlog, it’s time to clean it up by removing any completed items. These could have been done in the previous sprint session, or have been marked as unnecessary for some other reason.

It is crucial to remove them so that the product backlog is always accurate and reflects the current status of the project, allowing your team members to understand the full scope of what is left to accomplish.

Importantly, don’t rush to remove things at this stage — make sure they are fully completed and can be taken out of the backlog without a future issue.

Break down large items (if necessary)

At one point in the development process, an item may have seemed like an individual task and slotted into the product backlog as a single entry. As it approaches, it might become clear that several parts will need to be completed separately.

At this point, you may want to break down the bigger item into more manageable pieces, allowing your team to split up the work as they see fit.

Note, that it is important to avoid over-splitting items. Doing so will only create more work for the team and delay the project. Try to find a balance between splitting items into small enough chunks that they are manageable, without going too far and creating superfluous tasks. For example:

  • Task: Write a blog post
  • Subtasks:
  • Come up with a topic
  • Research information
  • Draft post
  • Edit post
  • Publish post

Breaking something like this into each subtask for the product backlog is likely unnecessary and would only create confusion among the team over who is required to do which part.

It would also slow things down and reduce productivity. Perhaps it needs just three steps — draft, edit, submit — to be more effective, or if the team is familiar with the process, even just one.

Re-order tasks by priority

Once you’ve cleaned up the backlog, added new items, and removed completed ones, it’s time to do a priority pass. That means reordering the tasks by priority so that the most important ones are at the top.

This helps the team stay focused on what’s most important, and understand what to do next without having to check in with the project coordinator every time.

Assign a due date, if applicable

For any new or changed items, list a due date if possible based on the priority ranking given previously.

A study by MIT found that in almost every case, self-imposed due dates are not as effective as external ones. This doesn’t mean cracking the whip and forcing team members to burn out, but a realistic (and sometimes flexible) deadline is helpful for employee time management.

2 women discussing something written on a whiteboard

Update the stakeholders

Product backlog refinement is great for the development team but it can also do wonders for the key stakeholders in a project, allowing them to understand and appreciate the timeline of each product. Updating them on the project’s progress and getting their feedback on what they would like to see next is an important part of backlog refinement.

That’s why there are always key stakeholders present in these meetings. Let’s take a closer look at everyone who would attend.

Who attends a backlog refinement meeting?

Though there is no hard and fast rule on attendance, generally speaking, any backlog refinement meeting is made up of three groups: the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team.

Product owner

The product owner or project manager is responsible for maintaining the product backlog and ensuring that it accurately reflects the project status. They can answer any queries that the team may have about the items on the backlog and help to prioritize tasks.

For example, if the development team asks “what should happen if the user clicks this button?”, the product owner would be able to give details on desired outcomes and discuss whether or not they are possible.

Scrum master

The scrum master is responsible for ensuring that the team is productive and efficient and that they are following the scrum methodology correctly. They can help to clarify any questions the team may have about the product backlog and help to organize and prioritize tasks.

For example, if the team has trouble agreeing on the priority of a task, it is the scrum master’s job to help to mediate and make a decision. Though the scrum framework is meant to promote collaborative decision-making, someone is still required to guide the group through these sessions so that it provides actionable results.

Development team

The development team is responsible for actually doing the work and implementing tasks from the product backlog. They can ask questions about specific tasks or items on the backlog to gain a better understanding of what is required.

For example, they may need clarification on how long a task is expected to take or what sort of resources are needed. They also are usually the first point of contact for user feedback or activity and can suggest new features, tasks, or outcomes that might need to be added.

How long will backlog refinement take?

There’s no specific answer to this question, as it is an ongoing process that should be done regularly. However, as a general guideline, it shouldn’t be taking away more than 10% of the development team’s time each sprint.

After all, if the goal of product backlog refinement is to keep everyone on track, having it eat up productivity doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For the product owner — the person who is meant to ensure that the right experience is being created — more time can be blocked off for backlog refinement, as they detail all of the tasks that need to be completed.

happy people talking with each other

What is one key benefit of a backlog refinement session?

If there is one thing that can be attained by a successful backlog refinement session, it is clarity.

The team, and by extension the stakeholders, should have a much clearer understanding of what is being worked on, what is still pending, and what can be considered done. This will give everyone a better sense of where things stand and how close they are to completing the project.

For example, if the team is working on a web application, they may have a backlog item for designing the home page. During refinement, they may break that down into smaller tasks such as creating the layout, selecting colors and fonts, and adding content.

This would give everyone a better understanding of what needs to be done, how long it will take, and when it can be completed.

Final thoughts: Common pitfalls to avoid

You may be thinking backlog refinement sounds easy, and by following the correct steps it can be! Still, there are a few common mistakes made that can turn a productive session into a disaster:

  • Not being prepared: This is the most common mistake. If you’re not prepared, you won’t be able to take advantage of the time you have to work on the backlog. Make sure you know what items need to be added and removed and that you have a good idea of the priority of each task.
  • Not having a clear goal: Without a clear goal, it can be difficult to stay focused and make effective decisions. The goal of backlog refinement should always be to improve the accuracy and usefulness of the product backlog.
  • Getting bogged down in details: It can be easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture. Try to stay focused on the items that need to be added or removed, and save the details for another time.
  • Not involving everyone: The goal of backlog refinement is to ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of what needs to be done. Make sure you involve everyone in the process, from the most junior team members to senior stakeholders.

That’s it! Avoid those mistakes and you too can be well on your way to having safe backlog refinement meetings that move the project forward, provide clarity for the entire team, and keep the stakeholders up to date on its progress.