Maintaining an up-to-date product backlog is a key responsibility for any project manager working within the Scrum framework. It provides the team with a roadmap of tasks, promoting focus and alignment while tracking progress. However, this backlog can become outdated over time due to changes in scope, priorities, or completed tasks.
The solution? Backlog refinement – often called the ‘heartbeat’ of Agile projects – is an ongoing process that reviews, updates, and re-prioritizes tasks in the product backlog. This may involve adding new ones, eliminating finished items, and ordering them according to urgency and impact. Complex tasks can also be broken down into smaller, more achievable chunks.
The main goal of refinement is to keep the product backlog in sync with ever-changing project needs, leading to a more streamlined approach and eliminating distractions caused by outdated tasks or misprioritization. Ultimately, it ensures that the team stays focused on the current project status and the path toward goals.
In this article, we’ll explore the following topics:
- What Is Scrum Framework?
- What Is A Product Backlog?
- What Is Backlog Refinement?
- Backlog Grooming vs. Refinement: Is There A Difference?
- Who Attends A Backlog Refinement Meeting?
- The Role of The Scrum Master in Agile Backlog Refinement
- How Long Will Backlog Refinement Take?
- The Relationship Between Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning
- What Is One Key Benefit Of A Backlog Refinement Session?
- Metrics to Measure the Effectiveness of Backlog Refinement in Scrum
- How Does Backlog Refinement Contribute to Product Quality?
- Final thoughts: Common Pitfalls to Avoid
Let’s delve deeper; are you ready to learn everything there is to know about product backlog refinement? Get your coffee mug at the ready – let’s go!
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:
- Continuous Delivery: The product is delivered in small increments, which allows for constant feedback and ensures that the product is always in a state of readiness for release.
- Self-Organization: The team is self-organized, proactive, and works together to achieve a common goal.
- Transparency: Regular meetings and communication keep stakeholders updated on the project’s progress.
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.
What Is A Product Backlog?
Within the scrum framework is something called a product backlog. This is a list of items or tasks that must 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 crucial.
- 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.
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 removed from 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 apparent that several parts must 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
- 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 must do which part.
It would also slow things down and reduce productivity. Perhaps it needs 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.
Update The Stakeholders
Product backlog refinement is excellent 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 want to see next is essential to backlog refinement.
That’s why there are always key stakeholders present in these meetings. Let’s take a closer look at everyone who will attend.
Backlog Grooming vs. Refinement: Is There A Difference?
In the Scrum world, terms such as backlog refinement and grooming often appear, which can confuse due to their similar definitions. Let’s explore these concepts within their contexts and look at some practical examples to clarify them.
1. The Genesis: Backlog Grooming
Imagine your team is working on a new e-commerce platform. Among the many features and bug fixes, you’ve amassed an extensive product backlog – chaotic, disordered, and filled with items of varying importance. Sifting through this mess is no simple task; it’s akin to organizing antiques from an attic.
This process of sorting and prioritizing tasks was initially known as backlog grooming. It involves breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, updating estimates, removing irrelevant items, and arranging the rest according to priority and project goals.
2. The Evolution: Backlog Refinement
Now, suppose you decide to clean and organize your attic and keep it in check, periodically revisiting to re-evaluate each item’s value and place. This is similar to how the term backlog grooming evolved into backlog refinement.
The change in terminology emphasized a shift from a one-off clean-up activity to a continuous, iterative process, echoing the Agile principles of ongoing evaluation and adaptation. This transformation indicates a team’s collective responsibility to maintain the product backlog’s relevance and usefulness.
3. Today’s Approach: Collaborative Refinement
Now in the context of our e-commerce platform project, the team collaborates to decide what goes into the backlog, how items are prioritized, and when something needs to be discarded. This practice encourages shared understanding and consensus on “done,” ultimately driving a smoother development process. Backlog refinement has thus evolved from an isolated event into a critical part of Scrum methodology.
Who Attends A Backlog Refinement Meeting?
Though there is no hard and fast rule on attendance, any backlog refinement meeting generally comprises three groups: the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team.
The product owner or project manager is responsible for maintaining the product backlog and ensuring it accurately reflects the project status. They can answer any queries the team may have about the items on the backlog and help prioritize tasks.
For example, if the development team asks, “What should happen if the user clicks this button?”, the product owner can give details on desired outcomes and discuss whether or not they are possible.
The scrum master is responsible for ensuring that the team is productive and efficient and 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.
The development team is responsible for doing the work and implementing tasks from the product backlog. They can ask questions about specific tasks or items on the backlog to better understand 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 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.
The Role of The Scrum Master in Agile Backlog Refinement
The Scrum Master plays a pivotal role in Agile backlog refinement. They are not just mere participants but facilitators who ensure that the refinement process is effective and aligns with Scrum principles. Let’s explore the key responsibilities that a Scrum Master undertakes during the backlog refinement process:
- Facilitating backlog refinement meetings: The Scrum Master orchestrates refinement meetings, ensuring they happen at regular intervals and run smoothly. They ensure that the discussions remain focused and productive, keeping distractions at bay.
- Promoting team collaboration: Backlog refinement is a collective responsibility, and the Scrum Master fosters an environment that promotes teamwork. They ensure that every team member is engaged in the discussions and that their inputs are valued.
- Advocating the prioritization of backlog items: The Scrum Master encourages the team to prioritize them based on their value to the project. They guide the team in understanding the importance of each task and project goals.
- Assisting in splitting and estimating tasks: Scrum Masters assist the team in breaking down larger backlog items into manageable tasks. They also facilitate the team in estimating the effort required for each task.
- Ensuring a clear and shared understanding: It’s the Scrum Master’s responsibility to ensure that all team members have a clear and shared experience of what’s in the backlog. They help clarify any ambiguities regarding tasks and their acceptance criteria.
- Upholding Scrum principles: The Scrum Master is the guardian of Scrum principles within the team. They ensure the backlog refinement process aligns with these principles, fostering a true Agile environment.
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 take 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.
The Relationship Between Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning
Backlog refinement and sprint planning are two core processes within the Scrum framework that play pivotal roles in managing and directing the flow of work. While separate events are intrinsically linked, one feeding into the other to ensure a smooth and efficient workflow. Let’s delve deeper into their relationship and understand how they complement each other.
1. Preparing for Sprint Planning through Backlog Refinement
Backlog refinement is the necessary groundwork for a practical sprint planning session. The product backlog items (PBIs) are reviewed, clarified, and prioritized through the refinement process. This exercise provides a well-organized, prioritized list of tasks ready for sprint planning. It ensures that the team enters the sprint planning meeting with a clear understanding of each item, reducing time spent on clarifying objectives and allowing more focus on deciding what can be accomplished in the upcoming sprint.
Suggestion: Aim to schedule regular refinement sessions, ensuring the backlog is consistently ready for sprint planning.
2. From Backlog Refinement to Sprint Planning: Bridging the Gap
Sprint planning directly follows the backlog refinement process. The refined and prioritized backlog serves as the foundation for sprint planning. In the planning session, the team commits to the PBIs they can complete in the next sprint. Having a well-defined backlog ensures that the planning process is more efficient, as the team can focus on estimating the work rather than trying to understand what the work entails.
Suggestion: Encourage an open dialogue between backlog refinement and sprint planning sessions to ensure continuity and understanding.
3. Continuous Feedback Loop: Refinement to Planning and Back Again
The relationship between backlog refinement and sprint planning is cyclical. Learnings from each sprint planning session can feed back into the backlog refinement process, shaping how future tasks are understood, broken down, and estimated. This continuous feedback loop allows for the ongoing improvement of both processes, leading to a more effective and efficient workflow.
Suggestion: Reflect on each sprint planning session, identifying what worked and what didn’t to improve future backlog refinement processes.
What Is One Key Benefit Of A Backlog Refinement Session?
If there is one thing that a successful backlog refinement session can attain, 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. They may break that down during refinement 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.
Metrics to Measure the Effectiveness of Backlog Refinement in Scrum
Here are some metrics that can help you gauge the effectiveness of your backlog refinement activities:
- Sprint readiness: This metric measures how many items in the product backlog are “ready” to be worked on in the upcoming sprint. An increasing trend in this metric over time indicates practical backlog refinement.
- Backlog item age: This metric tracks how long an item remains in the backlog before it’s worked on. A shorter age indicates the team effectively refining and prioritizing their backlog items.
- Velocity: Velocity measures the work the team completes in a sprint. If the team’s velocity increases over time, it can be a positive indicator that refinement activities are helping the team work more efficiently.
- Changes in sprint scope: If there are frequent changes to the sprint scope after the sprint has started, it can indicate that the backlog refinement process needs to be improved. Refinement aims to have well-defined, agreed-upon items ready for the sprint.
- Rework: The amount of rework required on completed backlog items can indicate the effectiveness of backlog refinement. Frequent rework might suggest that items are not clearly defined or understood during refinement.
- Team satisfaction: Regular feedback from team members about the refinement process can provide valuable qualitative data. If the team feels the refinement process is helping them to understand better and execute their work, it’s a good indication that the method is effective.
By regularly tracking these metrics, you can better understand the effectiveness of your backlog refinement process and identify areas for improvement.
How Does Backlog Refinement Contribute to Product Quality?
Backlog refinement, an integral process within the Scrum framework, significantly contributes to the overall quality of the product. By ensuring that the backlog is well-organized, up-to-date, and aligned with the product vision, backlog refinement can directly influence the product’s success. Here are some ways in which backlog refinement contributes to product quality:
1. Ensures Clear Understanding of Requirements
Backlog refinement encourages the team to discuss and understand each backlog item in depth. For instance, during a refinement session for a mobile app project, a backlog item like “Integrate social media sharing” would be explored in detail. The team would clarify which platforms to include, how the integration should work, and any constraints or dependencies. This clear understanding minimizes misinterpretation and leads to high-quality product features.
2. Prioritizes High-Value Features
The refinement process helps prioritize items in the backlog based on their value to the product and the end-users. For example, for an e-commerce platform, a “secure payment gateway” feature would likely have higher priority over a “recommendation engine.” This ensures that high-value components are delivered early, contributing to product quality.
3. Fosters Early and Ongoing Feedback
Backlog refinement allows for early feedback on backlog items, enabling the team to address potential issues before they become problems. If a team member identifies a potential usability issue with a feature during the refinement process, adjustments can be made before development begins, enhancing the feature’s quality.
4. Breaks Down Complex Items into Manageable Tasks
Complex backlog items are broken down into manageable tasks during refinement, reducing complexity and ambiguity. For example, a large item like “Build a customer support chatbot” might be broken down into tasks like “Design chatbot conversation flow,” “Implement AI understanding,” and “Integrate chatbot with the website.” This facilitates more precise development and testing, resulting in a higher-quality product.
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 challenging to stay focused and make effective decisions. The goal of backlog refinement is 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. 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 clearly understands what needs to be done. Ensure you involve everyone, from 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 updated on its progress.