Whether you’re making a cup of coffee or rebranding a business, you’ll need to take some specific steps to finish what you started. In the world of software development, a product backlog is a list of those steps.
Far from being a random collection of to-do items, you’ll continually prioritize this list to keep the most urgent things at the top so the developers know which tasks to focus on first.
Product backlogs and sprint backlogs are a part of the scrum framework, and while they take their bearings from software development, teams across all industries have come to love them. Why? Because they’re practical, useful, and a great way to efficiently complete project work. Let’s start!
What is a product backlog?
A product backlog is a prioritized list of steps that you need to complete to finish a project. The product backlog is something that continually evolves. You’ll remove completed tasks and sometimes you’ll add items as the project grows.
What is a sprint backlog?
Think of the sprint backlog as being like an offshoot of the product backlog. You’ll group the items into sprints, and each sprint forms its very own backlog.
A sprint is a time box containing tasks that you must complete in that amount of time — usually two weeks. The scrum team works together to complete this work by the deadline. They focus on one sprint at a time and ignore all other items until it’s time for that sprint. Any items leftover at the end of the sprint will be put back into the product backlog and addressed in the next sprint planning meeting.
At the start of each day, teams gather together for a daily stand-up meeting, during which they’ll report back on how they’re doing. The project manager then updates the sprint backlog, which makes it easy to see which tasks have been completed and whether the team is staying on track. If it’s not updated daily, tasks can slip past uncompleted and unnoticed, which could spell trouble further on.
With smaller sprints, teams can check in regularly and adapt accordingly. If teams regularly struggle to finish sprints in the allotted time frame, the manager needs to take action. They can either create smaller, more manageable sprints and move the project completion date back — or hire extra help.
Sprints help developers focus on one task at a time. Breaking the project down into smaller, bite-sized pieces also makes it easier to manage and less daunting. It also makes it easier to see whether you’re falling behind or not because you’re checking in regularly.
Unlike the product backlog, sprint backlogs are unchangeable while they’re in progress. Any changes to sprints need to be agreed upon by everyone in sprint planning meetings before the starting whistle sounds.
Three key scrum roles you need to know
1. Product Owner
The product owner creates the product backlog and oversees the entire thing. They work with the customer to understand their needs, then relay this information back to the wider team.
2. Scrum Master
The scrum master helps the team build the product, using the Scrum framework as a guideline.
3. Development Team
The developers who do the work.
How do the product backlog and sprint backlog work together?
The product backlog and sprint backlog are known as scrum artifacts, and they work together as a pair. First, there’s the product backlog. There, items are grouped together into sprints, each of which has a pre-agreed time for completion.
During sprint planning, the product owner presents the priorities and the team determines what can be done in that timeframe. The whole team needs to agree because once a sprint has begun, it’s set in stone.
How to use a sprint backlog
You should review sprint backlogs each day in a sprint planning meeting (aka a daily stand-up). These are short, informal powwows where everyone gathers together and discusses how the last sprint went and what they’ll be doing until the next one.
This is an excellent opportunity for everyone to check the project’s progress and air any concerns or issues that are stopping them from getting work done. Participants should be looking at the sprint backlog to keep these meetings should be short and focused. These could be sticky notes on a whiteboard or, increasingly commonly, a screen displaying tasks on the team’s project management tool.
How to create a sprint backlog in 4 easy steps
1. Work out project priorities
The product owner works with the clients and wider business to work out project priorities. They then pass these on to the scrum team.
2. Create your product backlog
Next, it’s time to create your product backlog, which will contain a full list of your Product Backlog Items (PBIs). It’s a guide for the team, so it needs to be written out clearly and simply. A product backlog can be big and ungainly since it contains every single task that goes into a project — so you need to be as organized as you can and know how to break tasks down into actionable steps.
3. Create your sprint backlog
This should be smaller and easier to create than the product backlog, but it still needs careful thought. You will bog down and discourage the team if you put too much on their plate.
First, add prioritized tasks next to each PBI. Each task should propel the team toward completing that specific item. It’s the product owner’s job to prioritize tasks since they’re closest to customers and stakeholders.
Next, the team (with help from the project manager) works out how much they can feasibly complete in a set time. This should be an open conversation between everyone on the team. While it’s tempting to think you’ll work at full capacity all the time, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Be realistic and factor in holidays, tech issues, and sick days so you don’t put unnecessary stress on the team or force them to create sub-par work.
4. Sign-off tasks
Once you’ve worked out all the timings, the team can gather together and double-check that the plan matches their capacity. Make sure everyone signs off the tasks, so there’s no confusion.
What makes a sprint backlog fail?
The number one hiccup when it comes to sprint backlogs is scrum teams failing to complete work on time. This is usually due to overestimating the team’s velocity, poor planning, or simply having product backlog items that are too large.
Communication can help your sprint stay on track. When teams are open about what they can and can’t manage when project managers listen and take notes. However, when scrum teams meet every day to share progress, it’s much easier to spot and fix issues before they snowball into bigger problems.
Project management software can help you manage your product backlogs and sprints. Backlog, our own tool, comes with scrum boards that you can customize and share with the wider team. Because it’s cloud-based, team members can check in for daily standups and see the board. This works whether they’re looking over your shoulder, in a different room, or on another continent. Meanwhile, instant notifications tell scrum masters, team members, and project managers when they’ve assigned tasks and team members have completed jobs, helping everyone stay on track, sprint after sprint.