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What does it mean to "groom" your backlog?

“Today I’m grooming the backlog”


You’ll hear PMs say this a lot at standup. It sounds fancy and glorious, like the backlog is this Wild West of Stories That Must Be Tamed. But what does that really mean? In short, grooming your backlog means ensuring that the team is still headed down the right path, and that you’re keeping an eye on the future.

Groom your backlog!
First, grooming your backlog should be a daily thing and not an announce-able event for standup. At standup, developers don’t say “Today I’m going to write code”. Set aside 10 minutes every morning and you’re set.

The reason for the daily review is that the PM is constantly receiving new input and needs to be folding this into product development. Results from an A/B test may show that users favor one feature over another. If you had plans to refine both features, you’ll want to adjust your dev priorities based on this new information. Or you may have validated a hypothesis about targeting a specific demographic, which could put some plans on hold. Also very important: developer time is expensive, you don’t want them starting on an outdated story because you didn’t take 7 seconds to move it to the icebox.

Anyone should be able to look at your backlog and extrapolate the product priorities

The backlog represents how you plan to build your product and bring it to market. Keep it clean and focused! Align it closely with your go-to-market strategy since you’re validating parts of the product as you build them. When reviewing your backlog, you should always be thinking short term and medium term. Long-term is for another time.

Therefore, every day you should:
1) Reaffirm priority
2) Review milestone progress
3) Look to the future

Reaffirming Priority and Hypotheses:

Pretty straightforward, you should look at the next 1-2 weeks of work, and check that stories are still valid. Review the priorities of stories based on information you’ve learned the day before. If a product release or focus group has (in)validated a hypothesis, this is the time to re-order or pull stories into the Icebox. The mantra “everything is high priority” doesn’t apply because developers work down the backlog – one item a time. Think in terms of “Is feature <x> more important than feature <y>” and re-order accordingly.

Reviewing Milestones:

Velocity is one thing, but you need to be checking your teams progress against your established roadmap. You should have release markers in your backlog to reflect important business dates (not technical milestones). Release markers are crucial because you can easily answer any questions about project status, and the team can see how they’re building towards an important milestone.
Set release markers in your backlog

For milestones, you can set a release marker with a specific date. Given the teams velocity, Tracker will show blue or red depending on their status. Since you’re always adjusting based on business needs or product learnings, your “nice-to-have” items should be close to the release markers (bottom of backlog) in case the team doesn’t reach them by the milestone date. In cases where you can’t deploy without a set of stories, then your milestone shouldn’t be tied to a date. To deliver a specific scope, you can’t guarantee a date.

Looking to the future:

The first two tasks help reaffirm your direction and to review progress. The final step is to look further out and build yourself a To-Do list of stories that need writing. Look down your backlog to stories that were written a long time ago, or are placeholders. Review the stories and check that the stated goals, mockups, acceptance criteria are still up to date. Stay focused on reviewing – this isn’t the time for rewriting or digging into product needs. For any out-of-date stories, or empty placeholder stories, add a label “Needs PM”. Just by clicking on this label you’ve created yourself a To-Do list!

At first, daily grooming will take a little longer, especially when you start challenging yourself on priorities. Keep up the practice with this 10 minute loop, and you’ll know exactly the progression of product. You’re expending a great deal of effort validating hypotheses, determining market fit, and listening to users. Don’t let it sit around, make sure all that data gets out of your head and into your product!


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