BigPicture is now on ! Enjoy enterprise-grade Program & Portfolio Management, now fully integrated with boards and workspaces.  Try it now
June 03, 2022

Product backlog vs. Sprint backlog: what’s the difference?

Agile Roadmapping Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Creating a working product that responds to customers’ needs is a vital part of the Agile approach. In order to make sure that the team handles the right tasks in the correct order, Agile practitioners use two artifacts: Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog.

These two terms are deeply intertwined, but it’s wise not to confuse them. If you don’t know the difference between Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog, you’re in the right place. This post explains the terms and provides some helpful tips on how to get the most out of both.

Product backlog – what is it?

A visualization of the product backlog in Scrum.

The Scrum Guide defines the Product Backlog as an emergent, ordered list of what is needed to improve the product. It is the single source of work undertaken by the Scrum Team.

Simply put, the Product Backlog is a list of tasks organized in order of importance, so that the team knows what work needs to be completed first. Aside from the list of tasks (called Items), the Product Backlog also contains the Product Goal – what the team aims to achieve in the long run as far as the product is concerned.

Product Backlog is a result of the Product Roadmap – a visual summary of the company’s vision based on the business goals, both short- and long-term. If the roadmap is a plan, the Product Backlog is the to-do list of how to make this plan a reality.

Prioritization is a crucial concept in Product Backlog. Without it, the team wouldn’t be able to deliver the ultimate value since the developers wouldn’t know which tasks are the most important from the client’s perspective at the time.

It’s the Product Owner who manages and maintains the Product Backlog. However, both the Product Owner and the rest of the team can create the backlog together. To create a valuable list of tasks, shareholders and clients should take part in the discussion. That way, the backlog will reflect the accurate and up-to-date needs of the end-users.

The goal of the Product Backlog is to organize the upcoming work in a way that takes priorities into account. The thing is customer needs and requirements tend to change quickly in today’s climate. In order to stay up-to-date on changes, the Scrum framework contains a process called Product Backlog Refinement.

Product backlog refinement – what is it?

The Scrum Guide comes in handy again with a definition: Product Backlog Refinement is the act of breaking down and further defining Product Backlog items into smaller, more precise items.

In practical terms, Product Backlog Refinement is a session where the team discusses the items that should find their way into the Sprint Backlog. The order of priorities is defined there as well. PBR is not just about adding and removing items; it’s also about making sure that team members understand the details of each item.

It’s important to note that Product Backlog Refinement is an ongoing process, and the team should perform it regularly. The frequency of refinement depends on the project’s complexity and the shareholders’ needs, among other things.

The goal of PBR is to establish and define the Product Backlog Items so they are understood, estimated, and ready to use in Sprint Planning.

Product backlog refinement – best practices

Now that you know what PBR is, it’s time to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible every time a refinement meeting takes place. Here is a list of 8 Product Backlog Refinement best practices.

A list of best practices for product backlog refinement

Once the Product Backlog is streamlined, the Scrum team can use it to create a Sprint Backlog, which is exactly what the next part of the post is about.

Sprint backlog – what is it?

Sprint backlog

First, let’s take a look at the Sprint Backlog definition. According to the Scrum Guide, The Sprint Backlog is a plan by and for the Developers. It is a highly visible, real-time picture of the work that the Developers plan to accomplish during the Sprint in order to achieve the Sprint Goal.

In other words, the Sprint Backlog is a list of tasks the team plans to complete in a Sprint. Team members curate the list together during the Sprint Planning meeting, and the items are derived from the Product Backlog.

If we break the definition down into parts, we will see that the Sprint Backlog must:

  • Be accessible to all team members.
  • Receive updates as the project progresses.
  • Provide information about upcoming Items.

The “real-time picture” part of the definition suggests that the Sprint Backlog is prone to changes during a Sprint. This is very much in tune with the tenets of Agile.

The workload is measured in User stories – an informal description of a feature from the perspective of a user. It’s one of the key ways of conveying the needs of the user to the development team.

All team members share the ownership of the Sprint Backlog. After all, the development team has all the necessary qualifications to complete the Sprint. Being independent and having the capacity to make decisions instead of constantly relying on the Product Owner or a Scrum Master is invaluable in Agile projects.

The goal of the Sprint Backlog is to ensure that the workload is in tune with the Sprint Goal and that the development team has enough information to complete the tasks at hand and measure progress. The Backlog goes through the update process as the Sprint progresses.

It’s important to note that the items in the Sprint Backlog can change only if they are in line with the goal of the Sprint.

Sprint backlog management – best practices

Now you should know a little bit more about the Sprint Backlog. But that’s not the end of the story, is it? There are a few things you should keep in mind if you want to manage your backlog efficiently. Take a look at the list of the best practices below and apply them to your Sprint Planning meeting.

A list of best practices regarding sprint backlog management

There is one more thing that’s useful for daily Sprint assessment, though it’s not directly related to the Sprint Backlog. It’s called a Burndown Chart; it’s a tool that lets the development team monitor the progress of the Sprint and it gives them time to make appropriate changes in case of any issues or delays.

As you can see, Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog are two completely different terms. Hopefully, this post has cleared any confusion you may have had about the two. Here is a short table that lays out all of the crucial aspects of the two backlogs used in Agile:

Product Backlog vs Sprint Backlog – a table containing the main differences between these two terms.

All you have to do now is to apply the newly-found knowledge to your Agile projects. Best of luck!