Many software development teams employ the agile project management methodology to review, track, and adjust priorities and tasks to reach their ultimate goal of a high-quality deliverable.
Several key processes make up agile methodology, and one of them (the one we’re talking about today) is backlog grooming.
This guide will discuss some helpful background information about backlog grooming, what happens in a backlog grooming session, and how it benefits project progress.
Participants need to prepare for backlog refinement sessions. Otherwise, you may not see the desired results, wasting your team's efforts.
Each attendee should look at the broad strategic goal. This review freshens the details in everyone’s minds and focuses the discussion.
The product manager should reach out to the company’s executives (who don’t need to attend these sessions) for feedback — which they should then incorporate.
The client should have a chance to weigh in before the meeting, too. Open communication keeps all stakeholders and team members involved and informed of project progress.
You'll also want to look at the key metrics up to this point and be ready to talk about any changes or discrepancies that have occurred recently.
Finally, consider the next sprints and get their stories prioritized.
Even if you don’t lay out their full acceptance criteria, you can share what they will be and why they’re important enough to be on the backlog.
Coined by Roman Richler, the DEEP framework identifies the four key traits of a backlog and guides backlog grooming sessions:
The information in a backlog needs to be properly detailed and have context. Stakeholders from other departments probably won’t understand vague descriptions or technical jargon.
Create detailed content that everyone can absorb, as inclusive information keeps everyone informed and able to contribute.
There should be a standardized measure the development team predetermines for each user story. This measurement relates to the effort involved in it.
The backlog isn’t static — and never will be. It’s constantly growing, shrinking, and changing as the team receives feedback from the project’s stakeholders. Backlog items may be deleted, added, or edited and may change in priority.
The backlog’s organization depends on the ability to prioritize tasks. Everyone must agree to implement the top priorities first.
You can prioritize them by various factors, including risk, cost-to-benefit considerations, and dependencies. Once the team completes an item, remove it from the backlog.
There are specific actions and outcomes expected from a backlog refinement meeting. Talking about and deciding on these points maximize the stakeholder’s alignment and help them agree on the priorities. Five actions to include in every backlog grooming session are:
Using metrics to measure results is a smart grooming best practice. While team members may have differing opinions, nobody can argue with numbers. The product owner should explain the metrics that have occurred since the last meeting and then use them to update the backlog.
Discuss the feedback from external and internal stakeholders and determine if it’s important enough to change or add items to the backlog. If so, assign it a priority and add it.
The product owner should be ready to answer questions and clear up anything vague or incomplete. Get into the backlog and start by removing tasks and user stories.
Add new user stories that correspond to needs recently identified. Check the priorities to ensure they still make sense. If not, re-order them as needed. Finally, identify roadblocks relating to the backlog items.
If there are broad user stories, try to break them down, or split them into smaller chunks. (Splitting user stories helps fit them into the iteration.) The team should discuss each user story and decide if it’s still a priority.
Do some need to be moved up the priority list, while others aren’t as important? Add acceptance criteria to upcoming user stories to ensure they meet the definition of ready.
The product manager may bring up items to include in upcoming sprints. This proactive measure is necessary to see how one session flows into the other.
Every team functions better when it's well-organized — and that's the most significant function of backlog grooming. Below are just a few of the major benefits of these agile sessions.
The information may have been a high priority and pivotal to the outcome once but may hold little significance now. If so, remove it promptly. Otherwise, it’s cluttering up the backlog and hiding the true priorities. Backlog sessions are a great way to remove the “fluff” so stakeholders can focus on the priorities that drive the main initiatives.
The backlog needs prioritized initiatives necessary to deliver a high-quality product. Team members should never have to wonder if there are important items that aren’t on the backlog or if unnecessary items are listed on the backlog. Grooming is the best way to put everyone’s mind at ease.
Adding an item to (or keeping it on) the backlog is a way to acknowledge its importance and ensure it gets completed during the sprint.
Cross-departmental teams can let their focus drift and become scattered if there isn’t a single source of work that everyone follows.
A well-kept backlog is clear, complete, and informative across the board. It keeps everyone functioning as a cohesive, updated unit that prioritizes their connection.
If you do this well enough, you may not need anymore backlog grooming meetings.
“We've had some teams try to do more of a classic two weeks scrum model — with daily stand-ups, backlog grooming meetings, etc. We've seen mixed results. Usually, over time, those degrade to fewer synchronous meetings, which is where most of our teams have landed," shares Nic Roth from Postscript.
Being adept at prioritizing tasks and maintaining a clean backlog allows you to start thinking about user stories and formulating the next sprints. Once the current sprint is complete, planning the next ones will come easier if the backlog stays groomed.
Unlike other parts of the agile methodology (like sprint planning and sprint retrospectives), backlog refinement doesn’t have an across-the-board ideal cadence. Rather, the scrum team can set up the backlog grooming meeting whenever they feel it's the most effective, efficient, and inclusive for attendees. However, there are a few popular cadences that typically work well.
The entire team doesn’t need to be present in the grooming sessions. However, they do need to be well represented — and informed of any decisions or major takeaways that come out of the session.
The product owner (or scrum master) and project manager should be present. One will usually serve as the facilitator and run the meeting. There should be at least one person representing the product team, the delivery team, and the quality assurance team.
Working on the backlog can get confusing and unproductive with too many people involved, so resist the urge to invite every team member to keep the session on track.
Understanding how, when, and who should be involved in grooming your backlog is essential to keep it relevant, complete, and updated.
Clear, clean backlogs are powerful tools that keep teams aligned and informed, identify top priorities, and help projects move forward efficiently.
There are two types of backlogs: product backlogs and sprint backlogs.
According to the Scrum Guide, backlog grooming is a scrum artifact.
Some may refer to it as backlog refinement, backlog management, or story time. No matter the name, it can either be a recurring meeting or ongoing activity that helps development teams prioritize the right stories and avoid chaos and confusion.
As defined by the Agile Alliance, the purpose of backlog grooming is “to ensure the backlog contains the appropriate items, that they are prioritized, and that the items at the top of the backlog are ready for delivery.”
Before you can fully understand backlog grooming, we need to explain what a backlog is. A backlog is a single source of information that encompasses everything team members work on. If it’s not in the backlog, it never (and won’t ever) happens.
There are various backlog items, including: