Backlog Grooming 101: The Must-Have Guide for Product Managers
What’s backlog grooming? Why is it important in the product management process? What role does the product manager play in it?
In the article, we’re exploring these and a few more questions, so find a comfortable seat, get a beverage of your choice, and dive in!
- Backlog grooming, aka backlog refinement, is a process of keeping the backlog up-to-date, relevant, and manageable.
- Product teams add or remove, prioritize and estimate user stories and other items during backlog refinement sessions.
- Regular grooming keeps the backlog organized, and helps to ensure the most urgent and valuable stories are developed first.
- Backlog refinement improves Sprint planning productivity and improves work velocity.
- Backlog grooming is an ongoing process and focuses on long-term goals; Sprint Planning happens at the beginning of each iteration and focuses on its goal.
- The Product Manager or Product Owner leads the grooming sessions and encourages all team members to participate.
- A successful backlog refinement session needs the participation of the key stakeholder representatives, the Scrum Master or a Project Manager, and the developers who build and test the product.
- To prepare for the sessions, the PM needs to review the roadmap, seek key stakeholder input and analyze user feedback.
- Backlog refinement meetings normally last 45 minutes to an hour.
- The backlog grooming process consists of 4 main steps:
- Collecting user feedback and adding new ideas to the backlog
- Categorizing backlog items
- Prioritizing the backlog items based on customer satisfaction, number of affected users, frequency of use, business value, complexity, risk & opportunity, and cost
- Building a roadmap with the new items
- Regular updates with detailed and categorized backlog items make the backlog easier to manage.
- Your product backlog should contain enough items for at least two iterations.
- The grooming sessions should happen around the middle of the sprint.
- All team members should contribute to the refinement process to increase shared understanding and encourage the ownership of the backlog items.
- MoSCoW, Kano Analysis, and Affinity Analysis are three valuable prioritization techniques.
What is backlog grooming
Backlog grooming, aka backlog refinement, is an ongoing process held to review and re-prioritize backlog items and get them ready for future sprints.
What exactly happens during a backlog grooming meeting?
The Product Manager or the Product Owner adds new backlog items based on the needs of the users and removes those that have lost their relevance. Backlog items also get broken down into smaller tasks, re-prioritized and re-estimated.
What are the benefits of backlog grooming?
There are a few benefits of holding regular backlog grooming sessions:
- Helps maintain a clean and organized product backlog
This one is a no-brainer, as it’s the basic function of this process.
- Keeps the product team up-to-date
- Prioritizes user stories based on value and urgency
Prioritizing the backlog items regularly helps deliver the best value to the customers and deal with the items which need to be deployed most urgently.
- Helps improve sprint planning productivity
By breaking down the backlog items into manageable tasks, prioritizing and estimating them regularly, you make the iteration planning meetings easier and smoother.
- Increases work velocity
Updating, organizing, and prioritizing backlog items help the product team focus on the right tasks at the right time. This increases the overall speed at which they deliver value.
Backlog grooming vs sprint planning
Thanks to both of the events the product team knows what work they should concentrate on and why.
However, there are a few differences between backlog grooming and sprint planning.
Sprint planning sessions focus on the backlog items that the team needs to complete to achieve the sprint goal, which normally takes a couple of weeks.
Backlog refinement has a more long-term role and its aim is to ensure that the work of the team is aligned with the wider product strategy.
It is essential for all team members to take part in sprint planning meetings while some teams decide that only a few of the members attend the product backlog grooming sessions.
Finally, sprint planning takes place at the beginning of the sprint while backlog refinement is an ongoing process and grooming sessions can happen at any time during the iteration. Some teams like to have it at a specific time, for example, a week after sprint planning.
Who owns the backlog grooming process?
It is normally the Product Manager or the Product Owner who runs backlog refinement sessions. They are the ones with the best understanding of the needs of the customers and the organizational landscape and strategy.
Sometimes other team members step in and take charge. For example, the Scrum Master may be better prepared to help the team break the user stories down into smaller ones or estimate story points.
Whoever leads the meeting, needs to have good facilitation skills to ensure that the team stays focused on the task and the refinement process moves along.
Who attends backlog grooming meetings?
The Product Owner or Product Manager act as the representative of the customer and the organization, and they have critical input into the creation of the backlog items.
The Scrum Master or the Project Manager works with the team on the daily basis and supports them by removing impediments. They are also skilled in prioritization and estimation techniques, so their presence is pretty essential.
The developers and testers do the actual work, so their input is also invaluable. For example, they are in the best position to estimate how much effort it will take to deal with a backlog item.
Ideally, all product team members should attend backlog grooming sessions to ensure a shared awareness of different perspectives. Scrum teams shouldn’t be larger than 9 people, so it’s easy to accommodate such a number in a meeting.
However, if the product team is very large and consists of sub-teams, it may be necessary only for representatives of each group to attend the meeting.
How should a product manager prepare for backlog grooming?
Preparation is the key to the efficiency of backlog grooming sessions.
To start with, the Product Owner or Product Manager should review the product roadmap and the strategic objectives. If they know what they want to achieve, it is easier to identify the best ways to achieve the goal.
As a Product Owner, you are also the interface between the team and the stakeholders. both internal and external ones. You need to make sure their input is heard, so always catch up with them before the backlog grooming meeting.
Finally, look at the data that you are getting from your users, and not just their feedback. Your users may be saying one thing, but their behavioral data could be telling a completely different story.
Likewise, the product experiments you’ve been running can provide insights that you should use to inform your backlog refinement decisions.
How long should backlog grooming meetings last?
Although there are no prescribed durations, many teams decide to timebox their backlog refinement sessions to 45-60 minutes.
This time is enough to go through enough user stories for a couple of sprints ahead.
Meetings longer than that are not always focused enough and interfere with the main responsibilities of the team members – building a superb product.
Backlog grooming step by step
So how do you go about backlog management? Let’s have a look at the main steps.
Collect customer feedback and add product improvement ideas to the backlog
If you are serious about growing your SaaS and developing a product that delights users, you need to talk to them. Otherwise, you have no reliable way to decide what features and functionalities they really want.
Microsurveys are a good way to collect your user feedback.
When collecting feedback, focus on identifying the friction points.
The product discovery process never stops. The needs of users or market trends change and you should be constantly looking for new opportunities.
Categorize backlog items based on their impact on the user and product success
Backlogs are not only about user stories. Your backlog may also contain feature requests or specifications, bug reports, or user insights.
It may be tempting to keep them all in one backlog but that’s not good practice. Instead, create separate backlogs for each of them. It will make them clearer to understand and make the backlog grooming sessions easier.
Prioritize backlog items based on several criteria
Once you have the backlog items listed and grouped, it’s time to prioritize them. There are a few criteria that teams use.
You need to constantly assess user satisfaction with particular features and use feedback to inform your backlog decisions. Satisfying your customers increases retention and is the foundation of product-led growth.
Affected number of users and frequency of use
While prioritizing backlog items based on user feedback, beware of the 1% trap and make sure that you deliver value to the majority of your users, not just the most vocal ones.
It’s common sense to start by developing the features that will be useful for the largest part of your user population and those that they will use most frequently.
Business value the feature brings is another criterion.
Thanks to their intimate knowledge of the product, the market, and the customers, product managers should be able to make sure that the roadmap is aligned with the organizational strategy and has the desired effect on the organization’s KPIs.
Complex features should be developed as early in the process as possible. This allows you to allocate the required resources and time needed to deliver them.
Complex features may also have complex interdependencies with other parts of your product, so dealing with them first helps you avoid technical challenges and the need to redesign crucial parts of your product architecture in the future.
Risk & Opportunity
The higher the risk, the higher in the backlog the functionality should be. This is because it is easier to mitigate risks earlier on during the implementation.
Cost should never be considered in isolation from value. It may be expensive to deliver a feature but if the return on your investment is considerable, it is totally worth it.
Build a roadmap with your new backlog items
Updating the roadmap is the final step in the backlog management process. This is when you add your prioritized backlog items to the existing roadmap and amend all the dependencies.
There are great roadmapping tools that make the process a breeze.
Best practices for backlog grooming
Let’s have a look at some best backlog refinement practices.
Make the backlog manageable
Up-to-date, detailed, and well-categorized backlog items are easier to manage during the implementation process.
Have a backlog containing at least two sprints worth of work
Having less than two sprints’ worth of work defeats the purpose of the grooming sessions because in practice it turns them into sprint planning meetings.
Having a long list of items also helps the team see the overall direction where the product is heading and allows them to prioritize the features without losing sight of the North Star.
Plan grooming sessions during the middle 60% of the sprint
It is a common practice for teams to hold the backlog grooming sessions halfway through the sprint.
This allows them to use the experiences from the current sprint to inform the prioritization and estimating decisions. It also gives them enough time to prepare for the next Sprint Planning session.
Encourage the team to express their opinion
It is essential that every team member has a chance to contribute ideas and participate in the debate on backlog items even if they don’t attend the meetings in person.
As the product team is the one delivering the increments, they need to have an impact on its shape. They are often best placed to offer insights into what works and what doesn’t.
Refining backlog items also encourages them to take ownership of their tasks.
Bonus: Product backlog prioritization techniques
There are a few handy frameworks that Product Managers, Product Owners and Scrum Masters use for prioritizing backlog items.
The technique is very well known in project management for scoping projects and prioritizing stakeholder requirements, and can also be used for user story grooming.
The method classifies features into 4 categories:
Must-haves: essential and non-negotiable
Should-haves: not exactly critical but still very high priority
Could-haves: desirable but delivered only when there’s extra time and money left
Won’t-haves: not included in the backlog
Kano Analysis is another well-known model which categorizes functionalities into 3 groups:
- Threshold – the absolute basics needed for the product to work
- Performance – also called satisfiers because the more of them you deliver, the greater the customer satisfaction
- Excitement – the features that delight the users who never even expected they needed them
Affinity analysis resembles a mind-mapping activity.
It starts with a brainstorming session after which all the ideas are grouped together thematically. After that, all the clusters are prioritized to create a list of new user stories.
Regular backlog grooming sessions are essential for the effective functioning of the product team. They help them make sure that they work on the most valuable and urgent features.
If you would like to see how Userpilot can help you make informed backlog grooming decisions through contextual, get a demo!