Backlog Grooming

Backlog grooming is the regular process of reviewing the product backlog to ensure that it’s up-to-date and ready for future sprints to use.

As your product grows in scope and complexity, so too will its associated product backlog. Over time, your backlog may accumulate certain issues. These can include incorrectly prioritized tasks and user stories, unaddressed roadblocks, and generally poor organization. 

That’s why it’s important to engage in regular housekeeping or backlog grooming, in order to prevent these issues from bogging down your process.

In this article, we define backlog grooming, what you can gain from having it as part of your product development process, how to do it, and some best practices.

What is Backlog Grooming?

Backlog grooming, also known as backlog refinement or backlog management, is a regular activity in which the product owner and product team get together and review the product backlog. 

It is intended to ensure that the backlog is updated and that all items are prioritized and organized in a way that optimizes your product development.

What Are the Benefits of Backlog Grooming?

A poorly managed backlog can slow down product development, due to the need for clarification or additional discussion whenever a contentious backlog item is part of the current sprint. 

So, by managing the backlog in advance and tackling issues ahead of time, you can benefit from:

A More Efficient Development Team

Unclear features, missing requirements, poorly coordinated tasks that require collaboration with external partners…these can reduce the efficiency and pace at which your development team works. By undergoing backlog grooming regularly, you weed out these issues before they become a problem for your team. This will also reduce the amount of time you spend on planning sessions.

Greater Transparency 

During the sessions, all stakeholders involved in the backlog items sit down and discuss each task. This offers a great opportunity for transparency, allowing everyone to see the progress of each part of the project.

Updated Features List

Backlog grooming is also perfect for pruning old features that are no longer relevant. These may come as a result of rescoping, new client requirements, or new user insights. In the same way, existing features and tasks can be updated with new information. When the time comes to develop these features, the tasks and user stories behind them won’t need any further updating.

A More Organized Backlog

Your product backlog is the result of contributions from many different stakeholders. Over time, all the additions can pile up in a disorganized, chaotic way. Backlog grooming is an effective means of putting order to the chaos, especially because all the relevant stakeholders are present and ready for consultation.

How Do You Engage in Backlog Grooming?

In most cases, backlog grooming takes place near the end of a sprint. This ensures that the next sprint will have a tidy backlog to work with. 

During backlog grooming, here are some core tasks that you can include:

1. Review Priority Levels For Each Task

Timelines and priorities change all the time during product development. Backlog grooming is the time to revisit these changes and apply them to your backlog. 

This ensures that your team is always working on the correct tasks and following the right direction. Otherwise, you risk uncovering prioritization and time estimate issues only at the time when you need to decide what task to carry out.

2. Split Your Stories

Story splitting is the practice of breaking down large, broad user stories into smaller, more specific ones. This reduces uncertainty when deciding how to create acceptance criteria and measurable objectives for each story. 

As your product backlog grows, some user stories may require splitting, because of added complexity and requirements from other stakeholders. Splitting them before they reach the next sprint saves your team a lot of time and potential confusion.

3. Add and Remove User Stories

Oftentimes, you’ll find that some user stories were previously useful to your business goals, but became obsolete over time. These user stories, if worked on, will not add a lot of value to your product, but will still take up the same amount of development time anyway. That’s why it’s of paramount importance to get rid of them during backlog grooming.

You may also experience the opposite—new user stories being added due to new requirements. Backlog grooming is also a time to ensure that these new stories are added correctly to the backlog and prioritized appropriately.

Best Practices For Backlog Grooming

You can improve your backlog grooming process by following these best practices:

1. Target a DEEP Backlog

Product management expert Roman Pichler describes the most important characteristics of an effective backlog in a simple mnemonic: DEEP.

  • Detailed appropriately: The backlog items are sufficiently detailed and well-explained to be discussed by all backlog stakeholders across different teams.
  • Estimated: Every backlog item should have an associated time and effort estimate.
  • Emergent: The backlog itself can easily be modified and refined.
  • Prioritized: Every item in the backlog has an associated priority level.

The ultimate goal of any backlog grooming session should therefore be a DEEP product backlog.

2. Focus on Customer Needs

When it comes to feature prioritization, what user stories are to be removed and added, and other backlog tasks, everything needs to be centered on providing customer value. Gear any changes you make during backlog grooming towards maximizing this value.

3. Have a Set Agenda

You can’t fight chaos with chaos. Your backlog grooming sessions need a guiding agenda so that they don’t take up too much time or lose sight of the main goals. A good metric is to target a backlog grooming session length of 45 minutes to 60 minutes.

A Clean Backlog is a Healthy Backlog 

Product backlogs can rapidly grow out of control without the right grooming. Backlog grooming is therefore an essential part of the product development process that you should not skip over if you want to increase efficiency, minimize risks, and take advantage of new opportunities.