The product owner creates a product backlog, i.e., a list of user stories and bug fixtures that need to be worked on in the upcoming sprint cycles. This helps maintain a product roadmap that needs to be followed in the upcoming sprints. The items at the top are more descriptive and clear on intent compared to the less descriptive ones at the bottom. Further in the process, a backlog grooming session is conducted to reevaluate priorities, clean, and organize the product backlog for improving sprint planning productivity.
Though not an official Agile practice, backlog grooming is a widespread practice helping the product teams stay productive.
However, understanding how to conduct a backlog grooming session and how to conduct backlog management has been an ongoing challenge.
According to Net Solutions’ Agile Product Development report, 21.4% of the product development teams face challenges with backlog refinement.
Here’s a guide to help you understand and get the most of these backlog grooming sessions.
What is Backlog Grooming?
Other names: Story Time, Backlog Refinement
Backlog grooming is a recurring meetup of product managers, product owners, and the product development team to prioritize, refine, and discuss the top items on the product backlog before the sprint planning.
A nicely groomed backlog is the one that prioritizes work based on the most valuable tasks.
Backlog grooming is often considered a practice that adds granularity to the product backlog and helps create an actionable list of Agile user stories ready for sprint planning.
A good rule of thumb seems to be that about 10 percent of the effort in each sprint should be spent refining the backlog in preparation for future sprints. — Mike Cohn
The to-dos of the backlog grooming process include:
- Eliminating user stories that don’t add value
- Reevaluating and prioritizing user stories
- Discussion around the top items in the product backlog for its fair understanding
- Breaking down large user stories to create smaller and manageable items
To understand backlog grooming, here is an overview of some related concepts.
What is a Product Backlog?
A product backlog is a prioritized central repository of all the to-dos for the product development team. These to-dos include — initially prioritized features, new feature requests, bug-fixtures to the developed features, and other activities.
In a product backlog, the high urgency, smaller and well-defined tasks are placed at the top, while the low priority, larger, and vaguely defined tasks are placed somewhere down the list.
The development revisits the product backlog before the next sprint cycle starts by conducting a backlog grooming session to reprioritize the backlog based on new learnings and ongoing product discovery.
What is Sprint Planning?
A product owner leads a sprint planning to help the development team develop a thorough understanding of the prioritized user stories that they are supposed to work on over the next sprint cycle.
These planning sessions are attended by the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team. Sprint planning helps the development team gain perspective into the:
- Sprint Goal: A short description of what the team will try to achieve in the upcoming sprint cycle. This can be done with the help of small cards (post-its) that describe the intent of the user story.
- Sprint Backlog: A list of items from the product backlog that the development teams commit to achieving in the discussed sprint cycle and the supporting tasks that will help deliver the prioritized deliverables.
Although entirely different, sometimes organizations confuse between sprint planning and backlog grooming. Here’s a table that highlights the difference between backlog grooming and sprint planning.
|Definition||Is an activity that helps revisit and reassess the product backlog items and reprioritize them based on new learnings, feedback, and ongoing product discovery||Sprint planning is an activity that helps the development team understand the sprint goal and create a sprint backlog, i.e., the items they commit to deliver in the discussed sprint|
|Attended By||Product manager, product owner, the development team||Product Owner, Scrum Master, the development team|
|Objective||To clean, refine, and rearrange the product backlog||To understand the objective of the user story and assign tasks for the upcoming sprint|
Thus, here’s the order of events that occur for improving productivity:
- Create a product backlog — a holistic list of tasks that need to be completed over the sprint cycles
- Conduct backlog grooming — prioritize tasks before the beginning of the sprint cycle based on urgency and value it offers
- Conduct sprint planning — describe the intent of the prioritized user stories, assign tasks based on how much the team commits to deliver
Backlog Grooming Benefits
Why should you focus on conducting backlog grooming sessions?
- Helps maintain a clean and organized product backlog
- Prioritizes user stories based on value and urgency
- Helps improve sprint planning productivity
- Assures that everyone on the team is on the same page
- Keeps the team informed regarding the new changes
- Decreases the time spent on sprint planning
Backlog Grooming Best Practices
Here are some best practices to follow when conducting backlog grooming sessions:
1. Keep it Short
Do not overstretch the backlog grooming sessions and convert them into sprint planning. The objective of the grooming sessions is to identify and eliminate waste, evaluate and prioritize new user stories, and clean and refine the product backlog.
2. Conduct Backlog Grooming 2-3 days Before Sprint Cycle Ends
It is good to conduct backlog grooming sessions two to three days before sprint cycle completion. The reasons to do so include:
- It helps track the team’s progress to see if they would need another sprint cycle to complete what they are already working on
- Prepare the team for the upcoming sprint cycle in advance
- The team has enough time to attend the sprint planning sessions before the next cycle starts
3. Show up Well-Prepared
The product owner needs to be well prepared and needs to have a plan before conducting backlog grooming. A few things need to be in place, such as:
- The product backlog is updated
- Should know the strategic objectives of the prioritized user stories
- Should know upfront what items need to be discussed
- Know team’s progress in advance
- Should be inviting the right people
- Talk to the stakeholders to get their feedback and expectations
4. Motivate the Team to Participate
Good leadership plays a vital role here. The product manager needs to ensure that no one feels left out and unheard.
The concerned individual should consider everyone’s opinion along with ensuring that everyone understands the top-priority items. Also, the product owner should be given time to ask questions about user stories under discussion.
In case the product owner is unusable to answer a particular query, they should be ready with the answers in the upcoming sprint planning meeting.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe.
5. Make it Fun
Backlog grooming doesn’t need to be boring. While you need to stick to its purpose, you can always start by asking how everyone is doing and how everything is around. Starting on a positive note can also lead to more productive backlog grooming sessions.
Also, if someone shows up late for the meeting, do not make them feel bad about it.
6. Limit the Attendees
Mike Cohn says,
Unlike other Scrum meetings, I do not think the product backlog refinement meeting requires the participation of the whole team.
There will always be someone who will be busy working on the sprint deliverables and will have to sit up late or have leftover tasks carried over the next sprint cycle.
It is thus a good idea to excuse those team members from the backlog grooming meetups. What you can do is — post the discussed items and the major takeaway on your communication channel. The takeaways will help them catch up and discuss any queries when they have time.
Frequently Asked Questions on Backlog Grooming
The answers to commonly asked questions around backlog grooming include:
1. Who Owns a Backlog Grooming Session?
A product owner owns a backlog grooming session.
However, there is no standard rule for who runs these grooming sessions. Sometimes a scrum master or the product manager can also arrange and run the backlog grooming sessions based on availability.
2. Who Should Attend Backlog Grooming Sessions?
The product owner, the product manager, and the development team attend the backlog grooming meetings.
Sometimes, a scrum master might also attend backlog refinement sessions for assistance.
3. How Long Does a Backlog Grooming Session Take?
The thumb-rule of running effective backlog grooming meetings is to keep them short. However, there is no standard time for how long it should be running.
To stick to an estimate, 45 minutes to a 1-hour time frame could be a good idea. Do not overstretch it to an extent where everyone feels exhausted and running out of time to complete the present sprint deliverables.
4. Why do we do product backlog grooming for the next sprint in the middle of the current sprint?
There are a couple of reasons for doing so, including:
- Product backlog items need to be ready for accurate sprint planning
- To prepare the backlog for the upcoming two sprints so that you can minimize the duration of the sprint planning session and increase productivity
- So that the team has an idea about the queued up user stories in advance and they can prepare them for the same and come up with any related queries from early on
- Postponing the backlog grooming session to the next cycle and the beginning of the week will delay the sprint planning, which, in turn, will delay the Agile development efforts. On the other hand, arranging a grooming session in the middle of the week or later in the week is productive as work is somewhere near completion and the team has less workload to bear with
5. How often Backlog Grooming Occur?
It depends on the duration of the sprint cycle. If the team is working a one-week sprint cycle, running a backlog refinement meeting every week is a recommended practice.
On the other, if you are working on a two-week sprint cycle, running these meetings every alternate week should be considered.
Backlog Refinement Tools
Having the right tools should always be a priority for product owners. And now that remote work is gaining momentum — having a remote tool stack is essential for a visual lookahead of the product backlog for effective grooming and planning sessions.
You could use tools like:
- Google Docs and spreadsheets
- ClickUp, Asana, Trello, etc
- Video Conferencing tools such as Zoom, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, etc
Backlog grooming helps ensure better project management. It is a good practice to refine the product backlog and prepare it for the sprint planning.
In this guide, we covered what a product owner should know before getting started with backlog grooming.
In all, consider working as a team and apply the best practices to keep your product development efforts on-track and going.