8 Tips for Keeping a Healthy Product Backlog

How to Manage a Backlog that Will Create a More Valuable Product

A product backlog is the single source of truth where all the ideas, needs, goals, and desired outcomes within the development of a product are recorded. It lives as long as the product lives. The only owner of the product backlog should be the product owner, who is responsible for its content, availability, and ordering. In reality, although it is not a best practice, the owner of the product backlog is often a proxy product owner or even the business analyst involved in the process.

A good product also comes with good Scrum teams behind it, and all good Scrum teams need a good product backlog. Agility is essential in creating a good product backlog. But how do we know our backlog is effective? This article offers a deep dive into how to create and manage a healthy backlog that will foster creativity, simplify the ongoing process of development, and create a more valuable product.

What is a healthy backlog?

The product backlog is often called a “living artifact” since it is in constant evolution, changing and adapting based on the current needs of stakeholders, customers, and the market. To keep a backlog up-to-date and in its most effective form, it needs to be continuously managed, refined, and adapted.

The product backlog is intended to be a simple tool, but in reality, product backlogs are often too long, too detailed, and difficult to use. Roman Pichler, author of Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products That Customers Love, and Mike Cohn, co-founder of the Scrum Alliance have outlined how to avoid this common trap– by making the backlog DEEP: Detailed appropriately, Estimated, Emergent, and Prioritized. This acronym is useful for determining if a product backlog has been structured well while helping product owners and development teams understand how to make informed decisions while maintaining a successful backlog.

The concept is applied throughout the product backlog refinement process, which is a key part of backlog management. This process takes the items at top of the ordered product backlog and decomposes them into ‘good’ user stories. ‘Good’ stories have the three magic C’s–“Card, Conversation, Confirmation” — and should be written according to the INVEST principle.

The INVEST principle means that each backlog item should be: Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small and Testable. This process gives the team a chance to reflect and give an estimate on each backlog item discussed before committing further to the sprint backlogs. It offers greater flexibility to look a little further ahead in planning the upcoming sprints, by making sure that the team will deliver value.

Significant leaps start with small steps. So, if you want to keep a healthy backlog, test out these eight tips to succeed:

1. Define a clear product strategy

Proper backlog management starts with a clearly defined and articulated product strategy. The strategy needs to define: product segmentation (product positioning, market opportunities and target customers); the problem the product solves for the customers (how does each feature address a user’s pain point?); and, of course, how the product stacks up against competitors— and how it will evolve. The owner of the evolution is the product owner who should make sure that the product strategy is transparent and correctly transposed in the product backlog.

💡 Pro tip: Ensure that the stories with the highest priority are placed in the first part of the backlog, and make sure each backlog item is mapped and aligned with the high-level product view

2. Construct a manageable backlog

An overly exhaustive product backlog is a common mistake. As the product grows, so does the product backlog. This means that sometimes backlogs contain too many items. If the items are not organized based on the business need, it becomes difficult to manage and lose their transparency. It also becomes difficult to predict where the product is heading.

To keep the product backlog manageable, it’s best to follow these simple tips: review the backlog periodically, remove user stories that no longer seem to be relevant to the product, create new user stories in response to the newly discovered needs, and re-assess the relative priority of stories.

💡 Pro tip: Product owners must work on maximizing outcomes by keeping the backlog manageable

3. Learn to say “No” diplomatically

Saying “no” is a necessary part when negotiating product needs that later will be transformed into product elicited requirements. The trick is how you say “no” to a stakeholder who wants to see their need or idea in production. Analyze quickly what they’re suggesting and don’t come up with a cold “No,” but use a language that sounds more like “Not now, and here’s why…”. Product owners/managers who bring stakeholders along for the prioritization journey help them see a more complete picture of initiatives and ideas that are all competing for scarcity we all share: time.

💡 Pro tip: Use the same strategy when refining the stories with the development team.

4. Look beyond user stories

User stories are critical to a product backlog, but focusing only on them may not be enough. This means that it is a good approach to look beyond user stories and constantly take a look at the non-functional requirements of the product (user interaction, the interfaces, performance, and much more), and try to represent and prioritize them all in the backlog.

💡 Pro tip: Don’t forget to pay attention to the non-functional requirements

5. Set the correct priorities

Prioritization is the key point in backlog management and should be aligned with the mutually agreed upon product vision and main KPIs. Available prioritization methodologies and popular frameworks will assist you in ordering the ideas and plan iterations more easily. A greatly used tool is the Value vs Effort matrix.

💡 Pro tip: Comparing the combination of value and effort in each task allows you to better prioritize the tasks and choose the most important ones for development

6. Align the backlog to the roadmap

After constructing a strategic plan that defines the desired outcome, the product owner needs to highlight the milestones needed to be reached by defining and prioritizing stories and tasks within the product backlog. The roadmap will serve as a communication tool that helps articulate strategic thinking — the why — behind both the goal and the plan for getting there, while the backlog is more of a “to-do list” of items required to complete a strategic initiative. A simple but powerful timeline is the best way to visualize the overall strategy for your product. You could consider the timeline the base of successful backlog management.

💡 Pro tip: Review and adjust the roadmap regularly, and be aware that frequent changes are likely to occur. Try to update it every three weeks to every three months, depending on the release cycles.

7. Provide visibility and transparency

Even if the person responsible for the product backlog is the product owner, all team members must have access to it and be able to add ideas. Scrum team members should keep technical debt in mind and offer suggestions on how to pay it back. When all team members can contribute, the application can benefit from everyone’s areas of expertise.

Don’t forget to share transparent updates with stakeholders to communicate the current status of your backlog. Updates could take the form of giving stakeholders access to a live dashboard featuring an up-to-date picture of your backlog. Or it could be a regular email bulletin to relevant people in the company, featuring just a snapshot of the dashboard.

💡 Pro tip: Keeping relevant people updated is necessary, but it’s also important not to spam people with the information they don’t need

8. Improve collaboration by collecting feedback

Healthy and successful backlog management means consistent and frequent collaboration between product owners and the dev team. Encourage the team to brainstorm ideas and initiatives, be active, ask questions, and collect feedback from them. Do the same with the stakeholders. This will increase both your and their understanding, increase the buy-in of everyone, and ultimately lead to clearer requirements.

  • Following the DEEP guidelines and best practices will lead to a quality backlog, which will lead to smooth product development and a successful result.
  • Regular refinements increase the chances of creating a product that adds real value to the users. In essence, it helps to keep your product backlog healthy.
  • Good communication between the stakeholders, the product owner, and development team will make them focus on ensuring a smooth and fast flow to the value of the backlog items, while steadily improving their effectiveness.
  • Starting with ambiguity in terms of release planning (or planning and moving to identify dependencies), particularly technical risks or ensuring that the delivered solutions meet the users’ expectations, could cause surprises and delays.
  • In the long run, an unhealthy backlog could mean an unproductive way of working within teams and even an unsuccessful product.