Product backlogs and how they optimize your Agile experience
Project management centered around static to do lists isn’t an efficient way to run a team. To do lists can easily become disordered and disorganized. This leads to poor prioritization of work, which leads to poorly coordinated and unfocused teams. All of this saps the efficiency from your team and makes them less adaptable.
But there’s a way you can keep your team on task, up to speed, and focused — a product backlog.
This post will explain:
- What a product backlog is
- The benefits of using an Agile backlog
- How to create a backlog
- Tips and best practices for managing a backlog
What is a product backlog?
A product backlog is a prioritized list of project tasks that might be needed to deliver a product. Backlogs are used to organize teams around more than just software development today, so some have adopted terms like “project backlog” or “Agile backlog.”
A backlog provides better alignment and guidance than a traditional to-do list because items are continually prioritized — reorganized, added, or removed as needed. When team members are ready for more work, they can pull tasks from the product backlog and always be working on the right task. Instead of working your way down your to-do list one item at a time, a backlog allows you to work on what’s currently most important.
There is a difference between a product backlog and a sprint backlog. The product backlog is the single source of all possible tasks. A sprint backlog, as in Scrum, includes items taken from the product backlog that will be addressed in the next Sprint.
Four types of product backlog items
There are four types of items most commonly included in a product backlog.
- New features add functionalities that users need. These improve the product to keep your existing customers happy and attract new ones. In Agile, new features are often expressed in “user stories.”
- Technical work (sometimes called ”technical debt”) keeps the product up to date and in good condition. These are maintenance tasks such as optimizing poorly written code in the software or fixing an issue on the website.
- Bugs are problems found by the end user. These defects got through quality control unnoticed but need attention. Unlike software teams, marketing teams don’t need to deal with technical bugs, but they may need to deal with problems like a lackluster headline, broken images, or a weak CTA.
- Learning (or “research”) makes sure the team knows how to implement a new feature. By setting aside time for team members to increase their technical knowledge, they can be confident dealing with new features or trying new ideas.
The main benefits of a backlog
Maintaining a product backlog is key for Agile project management. Here are some of the benefits of building and maintaining a product backlog.
- Keep your to-do list up to date. Team members always know what they need to do next. Team leaders know which jobs are most important and can give them to the most suitable team member.
- Encourage discussion about priorities. Because the backlog is constantly being monitored and updated, team members can contribute to the discussion about which items are critical and deserve to be higher up the list. The team can vote on what’s more important and decide how much work will likely be necessary.
- Increase efficiency. When everyone is working from the same list of prioritized work, the team can spend less time debating and second-guessing and more time building a better product.
- Improve flexibility. Teams can adapt and react to new needs and circumstances because they can reassess the items in the backlog. As the team’s priorities change, the list can change.
How to create a product backlog
The product owner is in charge of the backlog. It’s their responsibility to create and maintain the list of backlog items.
Prerequisites to creating a product backlog — the two Rs
Before creating the backlog, the team should know the general requirements of the project and already have a roadmap for developing it — these are the two Rs of Agile backlogs. The requirements are the function, services, and features of the product. The roadmap is the high-level plan of action for the product.
With the two Rs clearly established, here’s how to create a project backlog:
- Collect items. Start by collecting the tasks, to dos, and upcoming work you and your team have already identified. These could already be part of the team’s or individual members’ to do lists. Gather the tasks from all these different places into one source.
- Clarify items. Make sure you and the team thoroughly understand each item. Find out why it was requested, what the specific requirements are, and how it will add value. Remember to use the product roadmap to guide what is added to and what stays in the backlog.
- Prioritize items. Arrange the items in order of importance. There are several ways to do this. You could complete the most complex tasks first, or you could prioritize based on urgency. Some teams prioritize based on the level of impact vs. effort. Others prioritize based on business value — the work’s effect on revenue or savings. The method you choose will depend on the type of project you’re working on.
- Manage the backlog. To make sure the priorities are up to date it’s important to actively manage the backlog. This is called “backlog refinement.” You’ll continually add items to the backlog as new ideas or requests come in. You’ll also need to remove and modify items as needed.
All these steps happen during the backlog creation and as an ongoing process during the project’s entire lifecycle.
Tips and best practices for managing a product backlog
With new requests and items coming in all the time, it’s easy for the backlog to get out of control, so it’s essential for the product owner to keep on top of it. Here are some best practices for ongoing backlog refinement.
- Split up a large list of backlog items. When the backlog becomes too big, it gets difficult to find anything and progress is less visible. It’s important to keep the backlog manageable. One way you can do this is by grouping your items into long-term and short-term tasks.
- Delete items. It’s a good idea to get rid of items in the backlog that you’ll never do. If an item isn’t valuable enough to implement and it’s been on the backlog for a while, it’s time to delete it. With new items being added all the time, the product owner needs to be proactive in keeping the backlog focused.
- Share the backlog. When backlogs are only internal documents, they become stagnant — which is the opposite of Agile. Everyone involved should have access to the backlog, so share it with all stakeholders.
- Visualize the backlog. You can also visualize the backlog for your team. Teams will have a digital visualization of the backlog, but it can help to have an analog one too. This could be as simple as post-it notes on the wall, but putting it on display close to where the team works keeps everyone engaged.
- Review and reprioritize. Agile is all about flexibility and responsiveness, so your backlog should reflect shifting priorities. The items with the highest priority should always be at the top of the backlog. However you do it, make sure to regularly review and reprioritize backlog items.
Getting started with product backlogs
The product backlog is an essential part of Agile project management — having a prioritized and refined list of tasks increases your team’s flexibility and efficiency. Team members know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it.
To set up your product backlog, start collecting and listing tasks that still need to get done. Consult your whole team to find out what they’re working on and what’s coming up next. And don’t worry about making mistakes — the beauty of the backlog is that it can always be changed to adapt to current needs.
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To see how Workfront makes Agile project management easy, watch this overview video or request a demo.