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Backlog Refinement: Best Practices for Agile Teams

Use these backlog refinement best practices to prepare your product backlog for the next sprint, improving your Agile team’s productivity and effectiveness.

Agile teams are all about quick thinking and flexibility, but you still need to have a structured plan. By neatly lining up and ranking tasks, you set the stage for top-tier work and make sure to deliver actual value to your customers. And it all starts with backlog refinement.

This essential process ensures that every team member understands their role and precisely what to focus on through every project stage. It’s how you make each sprint well organized, goal oriented, and productive.

So, how can your Agile team master the art of backlog refinement? Here’s a look at the best practices that can transform your planning sessions into powerful tools for success.

What is backlog refinement for Agile teams?  

At its core, backlog refinement is like giving your to-do list a serious upgrade. Through this process, your cross-functional team reviews, simplifies, and ranks tasks to prepare them for upcoming sprints. This turns complex ideas into a clear, prioritized lineup of what needs to get done.

But why is this necessary? Without refining the backlog, your marketing team might work on tasks that are poorly defined, don’t align with the business outcomes, or aren’t properly ranked. This can lead to wasted time, resources, and missed opportunities for delivering optimal results.

Backlog refinement enables you to:

  • Verify that tasks align with the project’s direction
  • Identify the most valuable tasks to tackle next
  • Break down large tasks into manageable pieces
  • Estimate task timing for better sprint planning
  • Align your Agile team’s knowledge and efforts

Essentially, it’s your team’s strategy session, an ongoing process where you prepare to create an actionable task list that pushes your project toward the goal.   

Backlog refinement vs. backlog grooming

In the past, backlog grooming was the preferred term for periodically reviewing and updating the product backlog. This term came from the idea of grooming as a way to tidy up or clean something.

Despite its innocent origins, the agile community has moved away from the term grooming due to potentially negative connotations. To avoid potential misunderstandings, backlog refinement became the favored term, mostly replacing backlog grooming.

The shift in terminology didn’t change anything about the process; it just described it in a more positive light. Moreover, it’s also more accurate because the new term emphasizes improving the backlog rather than just maintaining it.

Product backlog vs. sprint backlog vs. increments

The product backlog, sprint backlog, and increments represent different Scrum stages. Each serves its unique role in guiding your product development team through the project’s journey.

  • The product backlog is the master list of all the tasks, features, and requirements envisioned for the final product. It’s a living document, updated during backlog refinement meetings.
  • The sprint backlog is all the tasks and features your team plans to complete in the upcoming sprint. You create this backlog during sprint planning to establish a rigid to-do list for all team members.
  • Increments are the deliverables produced by the end of each sprint. These completed portions have been fully created, implemented, and tested to ensure they’re functional and add value to the project.

You can think of these 3 components as the backbone of your Agile project management process. The product backlog outlines the journey, the sprint backlog sets the pace, and the increments highlight the milestones along the way. Together, they keep your product development team moving in the right direction and help you make steady progress toward the goal.

Why high-performing Agile teams refine backlogs

High-performing Agile teams treat backlog refinement as more than just a routine, ongoing activity. It’s widely accepted as a strategic move to stay ahead of the curve and improve sprint efficiency.

One of the biggest ways it helps is by enhancing clarity. A refined backlog clearly defines what needs to be done and in what order. This ensures your team members know what to do to reach the project’s goals.

Other ways Agile teams benefit from refining backlogs include:

  • Flexibility: The backlog refinement process allows Agile teams to quickly adjust their plan if priorities shift or new information comes to light.
  • Efficiency: A refined backlog reduces wasted time and resources by streamlining workflows and eliminating unnecessary tasks.
  • Client satisfaction: The refinement process keeps your team’s efforts aligned with what the client wants and helps ensure they’re satisfied with the end product.

Thanks to all its benefits, an organized backlog positively affects team morale. Team members better understand the overall project, which enhances unity and prevents confusion. This leads to higher motivation, enhanced collaboration, and a greater chance of achieving success.

Backlog refinement best practices for most Agile teams   

Refining the product backlog is like setting a clear path for your cross-functional Agile team. When done correctly, it turns ideas into actionable tasks to boost the efficiency of upcoming sprints. To help you create that path, here’s a look at the best practices that Agile teams with top product backlog refinement use today.

Set up a recurring backlog refinement meeting

Product backlog refinement should happen on an ongoing basis. So, you will need to set up recurring meetings with the product owner and other stakeholders. You may also want to bring a Scrum master to facilitate the discussion.

During each meeting, you can choose to tackle some or all of these tasks:  

  • Review all the current items in the backlog
  • Go over project requirements and changes since the last meeting
  • Determine which tasks to focus on at that meeting
  • Come to a mutual agreement on the size of the tasks
  • Break down any oversized epics into smaller user stories
  • Arrange the tasks from highest to lowest priority

The exact tasks you’ll complete depend on the project requirements and the total amount of time allowed for the meeting. For example, a 2-hour meeting may only allow enough time to review backlog items, break one large epic into smaller stories, and reach consensus on task sizes.  

The timing of your backlog refinement meetings depends on customer needs, project status, and team preferences. However, it’s typically held once per sprint. Ideally, you’ll refine the backlog a few days before the next sprint planning meeting. This gives you enough time to ask questions and address issues before planning begins.

Involve the Scrum team beyond the product owner  

While it’s true that the product owner is responsible for the project vision and return on investment, you need to involve the entire Scrum framework in the backlog refining process. In the marketing world, an Agile team structure may include marketing project managers, content creators, and data analysts.

Each person on the product development team brings unique insights and expertise. In this example:

  • A marketing project manager understands the overarching strategy and how to align tasks with the marketing goals.
  • A content creator is acquainted with audience preferences, ensuring effective messaging, targeted distribution, and strategic promotion.
  • A data analyst uses metrics to provide performance insights and steer the team to success.  

If you bring in a Scrum master, it’s their job to ensure your cross-functional team follows Agile practices and communicates effectively. They facilitate collaboration across the Scrum framework and help resolve conflicts while keeping the meeting on track.

Remember to go DEEP when creating product backlogs

According to Roman Pichler, an Agile product management expert, product backlogs are most effective when kept simple. He recommends doing that by ensuring your backlogs are DEEP, which means Detailed appropriately, Estimated, Emergent, and Prioritized.

In an Agile marketing setting, that might look like:

  • Detailed appropriately: Each marketing initiative needs to be concise yet have enough information for clear understanding. High-priority backlog items should have more detail than those ranked lower.
  • Estimated: Every task should have an estimation of the time or effort required to support the sprint planning process best. When working on a digital marketing campaign, this could mean estimating the hours needed for content creation, distribution, and promotion.
  • Emergent: Refined backlogs are not set in stone. They’re meant to be dynamic. Your entire team should be able to adapt them to project changes, like shifts in audience behavior and the appearance of new trends.
  • Prioritized: All product backlog items should be prioritized to ensure the most important things get implemented first. Put the highest-priority items at the top of the list, then remove them when they’re done.

Ask the right questions to define each user story

Defining each user story requires asking the right questions. The goal is to pinpoint the user’s desired product feature and understand its expected benefit for them. This clarifies the desired outcome while simplifying the backlog management process. Depending on the project, these questions might look like, “Who is the primary audience for this campaign?” or “What specific problem should this address?”

If you lack a defined set of questions, consider using the who, what, and why framework to create each user story. It’s typically presented as: As a [role], I can [capability] so that [goal].”

For example, when designing an email marketing campaign, you might come up with these user stories:

  • As a potential buyer, I can be informed of upcoming sales so that I can plan my purchases and get the best deals.
  • As a casual browser, I can opt into newsletters so that I stay updated on new products, events, and content.
  • As a loyal customer, I can get personalized product recommendations so that I discover items that align with my preferences.

Focus on the user’s needs and desired benefits to dial in these statements. Then, you can clearly define the user story and determine how to best provide value.    

Break down large user stories into more manageable pieces  

A user story should be small enough to complete within a single sprint. So, if a product owner comes to the Scrum team with a broad idea or goal, it’s the team’s job to break it down into actionable steps. These ideas typically start as large user stories, called epics, using the who, what, why framework.

An epic might look like, “As a website visitor, I can utilize an intuitive navigation system so that I can easily find products, demos, and tutorials.” This significant task is far too extensive to address in a single sprint.

To fix that, your Agile team can break it down into numerous smaller stories, such as:

  • As a website visitor, I can access a navigation bar at the top so that I simply click to go to the product pages.
  • As a website visitor, I can find a menu at the bottom of the page so that I always know where to look for links.
  • As a website visitor, I can bookmark a resource page so that I find all the product links, demos, and tutorials in one area.

These smaller user stories are now well defined and small enough for the sprint planning process. During that meeting, the team may turn the user stories into tasks, like redesigning the main navigation menu, adding a footer section, and building a resource page.    

Use team-based estimation techniques like planning poker

To ensure that user stories can fit into a single sprint, you must estimate its size, and if it’s too large, break it down to keep tasks manageable. But it’s not up to any one person to determine the size of each task. Instead, it’s better to have the team reach a consensus using estimate techniques like planning poker.  

Also known as Scrum poker, this method uses specialized decks with either fixed ratio numbers or the Fibonacci sequence. When discussing each task, Scrum team members select the card that matches their estimation of how much effort it’ll take to complete. They keep the cards hidden until everyone is ready, then flip them over simultaneously. A discussion follows to size the task accurately.

An even more straightforward method is choosing whether the task is small enough already or if the team needs to make it smaller. If deemed small enough, the task moves on to the sprint planning stage. Otherwise, the item goes back a step to get broken down into more manageable pieces.

Identify ticket dependencies to prevent bottlenecks

Identifying how tasks link together can prevent bottlenecks from impacting the upcoming sprint. Sometimes, it’s necessary to complete specific tasks before addressing others. For example, you must conduct keyword research before writing search engine optimized content.

If you miss these links, your team will undoubtedly hit roadblocks that slow everyone down. Avoid that by taking a moment during each backlog refinement meeting to identify ticket dependencies. Then, rank them accordingly by setting the things you need to do first at a higher priority level. 

Define the acceptance criteria for each product backlog item  

How do you determine when the product backlog item is ready for the sprint planning stage? You need to clearly define the acceptance criteria or the requirements the task must meet before it’s done. This differs from the Scrum Definition of Done, which applies to the entire product increment, not single backlog items.

Creating the criteria begins with a clear understanding of the user story and a discussion with all stakeholders. Use a structure like “given-when-then,” which is “given [context], when [action], then [expected outcome].”

That might look like:

  • Given that the landing page design is complete,
  • When I perform user testing,
  • Then the page should load within 3 seconds and be mobile responsive.

Above all else, be highly specific and make all criteria testable to verify they’ve been met. Also, stay open to reviewing and refining the criteria as the project progresses.

Keep the refined backlog visible to all stakeholders

Keeping the refined backlog visible to all stakeholders ensures everyone remains informed and connected. With open access to the data, key stakeholders can stay updated on product updates and changes as the project evolves. This transparency promotes effective collaboration and enables team members to make informed decisions. 

Use project management software or even shared spreadsheets to maintain a visible backlog. Regularly update the data after each backlog refinement and sprint planning meeting. Also, add updates whenever new insights, priorities, or requirements arise.

Enhance effectiveness with a sprint retrospective

Your product backlog refinement process can continually improve. But to do that effectively, you need to know where your team excels and where you might be able to do things better.

To find that out, you need insights from a sprint retrospective. It’s a structured sprint review meeting where your team reflects on what worked well, what didn’t, and how to make meaningful improvements. Like backlog refinement meetings, it’s an ongoing activity.

For the best results, encourage your team to openly discuss their experiences and provide feedback during the sprint review. Determine how well you worked as a cross-functional group and if your product backlog items helped the team achieve each sprint goal. Take those insights to create strategies for continuous improvement and use them in your next backlog refinement meeting.  

Master backlog refinement for Agile excellence

When you invest time in mastering backlog refinement, you pave the way for Agile excellence. The refined backlog helps Agile teams collaborate effectively and consistently deliver valuable products. So, while it’s not always easy to implement, the results are well worth the effort. Try it out to unlock your team’s full potential and achieve unparalleled success in your projects.

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