Backlog grooming: the tried and tested way to keep your sprints organized

Backlog grooming: the tried and tested way to keep your sprints organized

How do you prioritize when everything is a top priority? It’s a question product managers face daily, and it’s not one that gets any easier to answer. Luckily, there are tips and tricks designed to help you find a way to move forward and face that wall of sprints and user stories head-on.

Backlogs are full of items, but not all of them are top priorities. When it comes to choosing what the team should work on next, backlog grooming is the answer.

What is backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming, also known as Backlog refinement or story time, is a key part of agile project development. As the name implies, it’s a process that involves tidying up the backlog so the upcoming user story sprints are all ready for sprint planning.

You should conduct grooming sessions regularly to make sure you prioritize the correct stories. This helps project managers plan their schedules and explain the strategy to the wider team and others in the company.

What should backlog grooming achieve?

Ultimately, backlog grooming is all about organization and communication. Here are some of its main uses:

  • Help prepare springs of user stories for sprint planning
  • Break down big user stories into smaller, more digestible tasks
  • Help product owners and project managers plan and strategize
  • Improve understanding across the team and the wider business and provides an opportunity for people to iron out any ambiguity
  • Keep the overall backlog neat and tidy, with all tasks prioritized and accounted for

Why is backlog grooming important?

Planning and organization are never a waste of time. Keeping your backlog up-to-date and organized comes with lots of benefits.

1. It boosts team efficiency

An organized team is an efficient team, and backlog grooming is one way to do that. By continually evaluating progress and refining the schedule, teams know exactly what they’re doing and how to get there.

2. It improves transparency

Backlog grooming lets everyone see progress, including bug fixes, feature development, and improvements. It helps with communication and transparency and makes sure everyone is on the same page. This also means fewer interruptions and a more focused team.

3. It provides clarity

Lots of people are using the backlog, and it can snowball into a chaotic mess if not managed carefully. Keeping tasks neatly organized makes it more manageable — not to mention more understandable. The backlog is also a communication tool, so it should be kept clean and easy to interpret.

Who should be in a backlog grooming session?

Backlog grooming sessions are collaborative events, with people from different teams joining in. Here’s who should be there to help fill out those user stories.

  • A facilitator, usually the product owner or product manager, is the one in charge, often with the help of the project manager and Scrum Master. There may even be another team member who joins in with leading the session. Their responsibilities include organizing the meeting, inviting people, keeping the conversation focused, and sending follow-up information to all attendees and stakeholders.
  • The delivery team, or key people from it if it’s too large. Only invite people directly involved in critical tasks. Otherwise, too many voices will slow what should be a relatively quick task down.
  • Cross-functional teams will have a list of stories provided pre-meeting. That way they’ll know what the talking points will be and can prepare beforehand.
  • QA representatives

How to run a backlog grooming session

Pre-meeting

Before the meeting kicks off, everyone should prepare so the session runs as smoothly as possible. Ask attendees to review metrics and objectives and note down any big changes so the team has talking points in mind ahead of time.

During

It’s important to cover everything efficiently — set aside 45 mins to one hour for the session, and try to stick to this target. Having a limit helps keep the discussion on point and moving forward.

Here are some key questions to ask to keep the session focused:

  • What are the top stories at the moment?
  • Why are they top priority? (if you can’t explain this, they’re not ready to be there.)
  • How do they match up to strategic objectives?
  • Do we need to re-prioritize the backlog? Why?
  • Can we eliminate any user stories that are no longer relevant?
  • Do we need to split any user stories that are too big?
  • Are we keeping the customer in mind when prioritizing?
  • Are there any task dependencies? If so, note these down.

Items at the top of the list should contain the most detail. As other tasks move up, you will see more details. If there are any particularly large user stories at the top, these should be broken down into smaller, more manageable ones. Once the backlog has been refined, you’ll have what agile practitioners call a DEEP product backlog.

What is a DEEP product backlog?

DEEP is an acronym to represent features of the backlog.

  • Detailed appropriately: The backlog should contain enough information that other teams can understand and discuss progress.
  • Emergent: It should be flexible, so managers can add new stories as information comes in.
  • Estimated: You will estimate task times as a team.
  • Prioritized: The team ranks items according to purpose and value.

Post-meeting

Ensure everyone on the team who wasn’t in the meeting has all the new information to get on the same page. If you’re using project management software, the rest of the team will automatically be able to see the updated backlog.

Final thoughts

Backlog grooming is a great way to trim inefficiencies and organize tasks in a way that helps the delivery team stay productive and efficient while they work. You can hold the meeting around a whiteboard or computer screen and share notes. But, for a truly efficient meeting, project management software is the way to go.

Backlog, our own project management tool, comes with a Kanban board feature that lets you customize your columns and filter the display by date, team member, priority, and more.

This makes it easier to spot important tasks without information overload. It also comes with automatic notifications when you assign someone a task, you change a due date, or you add a new task. Everyone stays in the loop, no tasks disappear into a backlog black hole, and the project runs that little bit more efficiently.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).