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November 15, 2023

Backlog refinement – keep your product backlog in check

Agile Roadmapping Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Your product backlog changes constantly. New ideas and requests pop up daily. But simply adding them to the backlog would create a never-ending list, making prioritization impossible. So how can you prioritize and deliver the right items at the right time?

Conduct backlog refinement sessions regularly. Here are some tips for getting backlog refinement right.

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement is the process of reviewing, prioritizing, and organizing the product backlog items. It also includes adding details and breaking down items into smaller chunks of work.

This used to be called “backlog grooming.” But the word “grooming” has taken on a negative connotation, so Agile practitioners started using “refinement” instead.

The goal of refinement is to “clean up” your backlog. But not for the sake of cleaning. Removing unnecessary items and setting priorities helps establish order among the changes. It also helps your team to focus on high-priority items first. As a result, customers get more valuable additions sooner.

Adding details to backlog items means the development team members clearly understand the tasks. Clarity translates into more efficient work.

Furthermore, setting priorities facilitates the Sprint Planning meeting. When backlog items are neatly organized, developers can quickly pick the highest priority items and plan their work for the upcoming Sprint.

Refinement is not a Scrum event (like Sprint Planning or Retrospective), and it’s not mandatory. However, many Scrum practitioners refine the backlog regularly. And if your organization utilizes Agile in your projects, you should be aware of it, too. Set up a recurring team-wide refinement meeting to clean up the backlog often.

Backlog refinement meeting in a nutshell

Want to organize your first backlog refinement meeting? Here’s what you need to know.

Who attends a backlog refinement meeting?

First, you need the Product Owner. In Scrum, this role is accountable for managing the product backlog, and refining it falls under that category. Aside from the PO running the refinement meeting, the Scrum Master can also be present. But it’s usually at the request of the developers.

Some say only one Developer and a QA representative are enough to complete the list of participants. But it’s usually more beneficial if the entire Scrum Team is present. Why? Because then, the whole team gets to actively participate in the process. Also, there is no need to get people up to speed later on.

What happens at the refinement meeting?

The team combs through all the items on the product backlog. It’s up to the Product Owner to prepare a list of priorities. Participants discuss risk priorities and task details. That includes user needs or expectations, definition of done, and acceptance criteria, among others.

Refinement is also an excellent moment to estimate the effort necessary to deliver each item. If the item is too large or small, the team can split it into several tasks or group them.

At the end of the meeting, the backlog is more organized, and the team has more information about the upcoming tasks. The highest-priority user stories go to the top of the backlog.

Some old user stories may not be relevant anymore, so the Product Owner removes them. But the Product Owner can (and should) do it outside of the meeting. However, it’s important to update the team during the session. In other cases, teams reevaluate items instead of removing them.

Why is backlog refinement important?

Most importantly, refinement helps teams align the backlog with the product goal and customer needs. Also, a refined backlog is a clean backlog containing only relevant items.

The process helps developers to better understand critical user stories. A refinement meeting is an excellent opportunity to ask questions and clear up uncertainties.

Refinement impacts short-term planning, too. Arranging the list in the order of priority streamlines Sprint Planning. Plus, the items in the Sprint backlog are more likely to be relevant and valuable for customers.

Backlog refinement best practices

Consistency is king

Refinement is an ongoing process. New items enter the backlog often, so reviewing them (and the previous items) is vital. As a result, your backlog will stay organized longer. Any time new items pop up, it will be easier to organize them.

Make sure your backlog is DEEP

Don’t let the name fool you. It’s not about the backlog’s size or literal depth. DEEP is an acronym combining the four characteristics of a healthy backlog.

Deep backlog

Detailed appropriately: high-priority items should contain the most details. Conversely, low priority tasks do not require exhaustive description. So if the priority goes up during the refinement meeting, the level of description should reflect that.

Bear in mind that too much detail isn’t helpful, either. Cramming too much information into your descriptions can cause developers to overthink instead of focusing on the task at hand.

Estimated: make sure your developers estimate the items. It’s crucial for the highest-priority tasks. However, estimating the less urgent ones, too, will be beneficial later on.

After all, once your team delivers the high-priority items, the tasks they now see as less important might become important in the future. And they will already have a story point estimate.

Emergent: in Scrum, the backlog is a living thing that evolves over time. New items emerge, and your team has to account for that. Sometimes, you’ll need to remove or deprioritize existing items to accommodate new ones.

Prioritized: the order of items is determined by their priority. So, the team works on stories with the highest priority first.

Allocate enough time for refinement

Unlike Scrum events, refinement doesn’t have a fixed duration. The more items you have to refine, the more refinement sessions you’ll need. But that also means that holding regular refinement will help keep your meetings short.

So, how do you gauge the meeting’s timing? Use the 15/5 rule for discussion. This means limiting the refinement of each item to 15 minutes only. If the item requires more discussion, push it to the next meeting.

Also, limit unproductive discussions to no more than 5 minutes. This will keep the team on topic and maximize the session’s effectiveness.

Manage your team’s backlog effectively with BigPicture

Appfire’s Project Portfolio Management app enables you to streamline refinement and Sprint Planning. It combines data reliability, easy access to relevant information, and handy features that speed up your actions.

The Board module contains the timeline and scheduled sprints with the tasks for each team or individual member. The team view contains allocation data, which supports monitoring capacity planning results. If your team is overloaded with work, the app will even show you an allocation warning.

BigPicture board module
Timeline board view in BigPicture. Note the red line and exclamation mark next to capacity allocation stats.


The Board shows key information about each task, including dependencies. Best of all, you can customize the task cards to display the most important fields.

With a single click, you can “summon” the backlog. Click the Infobar on the right, and the backlog will appear instantly. The panel can display all tasks or just those you haven’t planned yet. The task data flows straight from Jira, so if the team members make changes to an item, the backlog will reflect that.

Backlog in BigPictureWhen you have the board and the backlog open together, refinement and planning become much easier. Want to add or change the priority of an item? With in-line editing, you’ll do it in a heartbeat. The same goes for assignees.

 

If you want to assign a backlog item to a Sprint, drag it from the backlog and drop it on the board. As a result, the task will be assigned to the right team with proper dates automatically. Also, the relevant team members will see the change in the task details in Jira, too. See how quickly you can assign an item from the backlog to the Sprint.


Instead of the backlog, you can also see the list of dependencies and navigate to each one faster. Last but not least, the Warnings tab lets you know of any issues the app detected on the board.

Warnings in BigPicture
Warnings help you see scheduling and allocation conflicts. But the app also provides suggestions that can fix problems.


But
BigPicture does more than Agile management. The app is compatible with Classic and Hybrid initiatives, too. In fact, it can help your organization manage entire programs and portfolios. Plan, prioritize, manage, and report — all in one place! Thanks to a two-way synchronization with Jira, your teams can work as usual, and you better understand the bigger picture.