The Product Backlog Grooming Steps

Posted on Monday 2nd April 2012

Summary

Discover five essential steps that will ensure that your product backlog facilitates innovation and drives the work of the development team.

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Grooming the product backlog means managing the backlog. This is necessary, as the product backlog changes and evolves: The team gains knowledge from exposing a product increment to the users, and the latest insights lead to a backlog update, as the picture below shows.

Much of the existing advice on product backlog grooming focuses on getting the backlog in shape to supply the development team with concise stories. Unfortunately, evaluating user feedback and integrating it into the backlog has been underemphasised. This blog posts tries to set the record straight by offering a holistic, five-step grooming process – from analysing user feedback to getting the backlog “ready”. Please note that I focus on new or innovative products rather than incremental updates of mature products.

Step 1: Analyse the Feedback

Grooming the product backlog starts with analysing the feedback collected from exposing a product increment to target users and customers. The increment may be working software, or in the case of a brand-new product, a paper prototype. The data obtained may be quantitative, qualitative, or both depending on what’s feasible and beneficial. I prefer to work with both, qualitative and quantitative data.

When evaluating the feedback, focus on the data that is relevant to test your ideas and answering your questions. Have the courage to say no to new ideas and requests if these are not helpful to move you closer to your vision. Otherwise, your product is in danger of becoming a feature soup, a loose collection of features with little or no connection, which usually results in a poor user experience.

Be aware of the cognitive bias we all have, your hidden assumptions and wishes, as these can lead to ignoring or misinterpreting data. To mitigate the risk, analyse the feedback together with the team members. Remember that negative feedback is good feedback: If all you ever hear is positive, you are not learning anything new.

Step 2: Integrate the Learning

Once you have analysed the feedback, incorporate your insights into the product backlog. This results in removing, adjusting, and adding content: epics, operational constraints, design and workflow sketches. If the feedback invalidates you assumptions regarding the target group, the user needs, and the business model, you may have to adjust your vision board, remove the product backlog content, and restock your backlog.

Note that in the image above, the product backlog board’s top section is empty, as the high-priority items have been consumed, and new ready stories still have to be created. (This is done in step 4.)

Step 3: Decide what to do Next

After incorporating the learning into your backlog, decide what to do next. Ask yourself why you want to carry out the next cycle. What do you want to learn? Which ideas and assumptions do you want to validate? Which functionality do you want to provide? For new products or innovative features, your goal should be a testable hypothesis, for instance, by using the following format: If we do x, we will achieve y.

My goal for writing this blog post, for instance, is twofold: Consolidate my knowledge about the grooming process and understand if my recommendations resonate with my readers. The first sub goal is met by making time to write the post. The second one is attained if the post gets a comparatively high number of hits, generates a certain amount of Twitter traffic, and attracts meaningful comments.

Step 4: Create Small Stories

Next, carve stories out of the epics in order to reach your goal. Then make the stories high-priority, and order the stories according to their importance for reaching the goal, as the image below shows.

You may also want to ask the team to estimate any epics that have been added or adjusted as well as the newly formed stories. This allows you to understand how much effort is roughly contained in the backlog.

Step 5: Get the Stories Ready

With small, ordered user stories in place, you are close to starting the next cycle. But before you do so, ensure that the stories are “ready”: clear, feasible, and testable. This may entail creating a user interface design sketch and one or more operational quality constraints for the stories, as the image below illustrates.

Getting the stories ready may also require resolving dependencies between teams if several teams work on the same product. The stories should now be ready to be pulled onto the sprint backlog or the Kanban board.

Leverage Teamwork

When I talk to product owners about grooming their backlog, I often discover that the individual carries out the work largely alone. This wastes a massive opportunity: to mitigate the product owner’s cognitive bias, to create shared ownership of the backlog, and to leveraging the team’s collective wisdom and creativity.

As the product owner, involve the team members in the grooming steps. This reduces your workload, and it is likely to result in a better product. Don’t be afraid, however, to facilitate the discussions and to make a decision if no consensus can be reached. You don’t want to get stuck in analysis-paralysis but move on, and test your new ideas and assumptions.

Summary

When grooming your product backlog, don’t forget to collect and to analyse the user feedback. Integrate your insights, select your next goal, write small, detailed stories, and get them ready for implementation. Rely on your intuition as well as the data analysis, and involve the team in the grooming steps.

If you want to learn more about the product backlog, book a place on my Mastering the Product Backlog course in May in London or in September in Cambridge, or contact me.

13 comments on “The Product Backlog Grooming Steps

  1. John Peltier says:

    Much of the agile literature de-emphasizes the work that goes into analyzing feedback. This gap is most apparent when agile is applied to off-the-shelf software rather than custom development.

    One way to mitigate that is mentioned in your post, but frequently not followed in these situations — bringing real customers into the sprint demos rather than just internal stakeholders. This is sometimes a difficult technique to sell, but an aggressive enterprise might find that an NDA could protect their interests while still deriving the benefit that this exposure provides.

    • Hi John, Thanks for your comment. You are right: Inviting real customers and end users to a demo can be a great way to get feedback. I’ve wanted to write a post on the different options to collect feedback for a while. Your comment makes me rethink my blog backlog prioritisation :-)

  2. Praveen says:

    Hi Roman,

    Always glad to read your blog and book. I worked with you for a transformation work at EA. My scrum teams absolutely love the idea of grroming and it is part of thier DNA. I had few inputs to what happens in grooming and before planning.

    1. Spikes in grooming

    o Identifying/Discussing any needed ‘Spike’ PBI’s
     We like to identify these sooner rather than later because you generally want to do your ‘Spike’ PBI one or more Sprints before your “Follow On” PBI.
     Some of these may involve investigating new technologies that are architecturally risky
    o Identifying/Discussing external dependencies
     We like to identify these sooner rather than later because they make take multiple Sprints to resolve
     If the external dependency creates enough estimate uncertainty, you can also create ‘Spike’ PBI’s to get the external dependency resolved in an earlier sprint before the “Follow On” PBI in a later sprint.

    2. We have like champions within team who would voluteer to investigate this spike or do a quick prototype before the actual PBI’s are played next sprint.

    cheers
    Praveen

    • Hi Praveen, Good to hear from you and thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve also found that spikes are helpful to explore different options particularly when dealing with a new feature of a mature product. If the spike is created in a different sprint compared to the actual story, it may be helpful to add the spike to the product backlog and make it high priority.

  3. Andreas says:

    Hi Roman,
    when we meet together in backlog grooming sessions, it is often the case that during discussion the teams realize that some refactoring is necessary. In the past that has lead to very technical user stories which were scattered all over the backlog. Since I became the PO, we are trying to reduce such “stories”. However, these things are necessary and I am having difficulties to organize them as user stories since the customer value behind such stories is often not clear to me due to the very technical domain. Do you have an advice how deal with refactoring and the like? The teams want to have an own backlog with such things. What do you think of that?

    Thanks a lot!
    Andreas

    • Hi Andreas, Thanks for your comment. I recommend that you add bigger refactoring items to the product backlog, as this creates transparency and facilities planning. For instance, you want to add new functionality but still meet your main performance constraint. The team has identified the database access layer as the main refactoring area. Now add the following refactoring item to your backlog: “Refactor the database access layer so that the user story ‘event management’ can be provided and the performance constraint ‘response time’ is still met.” Sometimes it makes sense to create a “Snow Leopard”, a maintenance release before new functionality is implemented by the way. If Apple can do it, so can we ;-)

  4. Andreas says:

    Hi Roman, thanks for the simple approach. Seems that obvious that I did not think of it. The good thing is that it encourages to focus on value even in very technical stories. Regards from Hamburg!

  5. [...] You can find more information on the grooming steps above in my post “The Product Backlog Grooming Steps“. [...]

  6. [...] I discuss the grooming steps in my post “The Product Backlog Grooming Steps” in more details. Grooming takes place before more development [...]

  7. [...] ready stories are the output of the product backlog grooming work [...]

  8. Andreas says:

    Hi Roman! It’s me again :-)

    I am having troubles to communicate to my three dev teams that grooming the product backlog is a shared responsibility. Their understanding is that the stories which enter the grooming session are already well prepared. Estimation is what is done in the grooming session. They demand other kick-off meeting to discuss stories in details and talk about how to solve them. Apparently, stories in the form of “As a user I want to do X so that I get value Y” is not enough specification to my dev colleagues.

    Maybe you have an idea how to bring business and engineering together in order to generate good PBIs.

    Thanks!
    Andreas

    • Hi Andreas,

      I know this sounds like a cop out but the best advice I can give you is: Attend the next retrospective, and talk to the team about the issue. There could be many causes: Team members might feel they don’t have the time to contribute; the team members might have a wrong understanding of the product owner role; the team members may lack the knowledge or skills to contribute; or the team members might be worried that hey could be held accountable for the product’s functionality.

      Good luck!

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