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By Pavel Kukhnavets

Backlog Grooming

A regular session where backlog items are discussed, reviewed, and prioritized.

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A product backlog can be considered as a living organism, and all living organisms need care and attention.

Backlog grooming is right about it. This is when the Product Owner together with the Scrum team reviews items on the backlog to make everything all right. Product backlog grooming is not yet an official Scrum event, however many specialists admit that it may lead to a more productive Sprint Planning.

Backlog grooming in Scrum

Grooming is a crucial task for product teams. This is not a one-time activity, but one that is regularly revisited and can be scheduled as ongoing in a project.

So, what is a grooming meeting in Agile? Is this a Scrum ceremony? Who usually attends backlog grooming and how long should the session take?

You probably have more questions on this topic. Well, let’s not waste time and immediately reveal all the secrets.

What is Backlog Grooming in Scrum?

Backlog grooming is a regular session where all essential items of the backlog are discussed, reviewed, and prioritized by a Product Owner, a product manager, and the rest team members. The key goal of this Scrum ceremony is to keep the backlog up-to-date and guarantee that its items are prepared for upcoming sprints.

The process is helpful for product managers as it explains and aligns the organization behind the strategy that informs the backlog items.

Also known as

Backlog grooming is also known as backlog refinement, backlog management, or pre-planning. It is widely adopted by Scrum and Agile teams all over the world.

The process of grooming was added to the list of official Scrum ceremonies in 2011. But the latest data published in the Scrum Guide (November 2020) report that backlog refinement is not an official Scrum event anymore.

Agile Scrum

What are the roots of the concept?

The earliest recorded use of the term “backlog grooming” is known from the Scrum development mailing list by Mike Cohn (2005). It will be a couple of years before the practice is described in a more formal way.

In 2008, one of the first formal descriptions of this Scrum process is given by Kane Mar (known as “Story Time”).

What does the grooming include?

The refinement process includes some essential tactical activities that occur during backlog management:

  • Removing outdated tasks and user stories.
  • Breaking down broad user stories into smaller items.
  • Reordering user stories in accordance with priorities.
  • Adding new user stories with the newly discovered user insights.
  • Defining tasks and user stories in order to avoid uncertainty.
  • Identifying essential roadblocks.
  • Minimizing risks related to backlog items.
  • Assigning (re-assigning) story points and estimates.

Top-3 most important backlog grooming activities

Backlog refinement sessions should motivate Product Owners and their teams to find the balance between the needs of stakeholders and project objectives.

There are main and essential activities required for a healthy backlog meeting and you should consider them first. Let’s define the top-3:

1. When you add and eliminate user stories

An important maneuver relates to getting rid of the user stories that no longer appear relevant. However, do not forget that as some user stories drop off the backlog, others should be involved.

2. When you split user stories

Large stories must be broken down. This splitting will relate to those user stories that have high priority but too large to fit in an upcoming iteration.

3. When you update priorities

It is not a secret that priorities often change. They must be labeled in the backlog. Therefore the refinement process is also about the regular reassessment of the stories’ priorities.

What is the expected outcome of the backlog refinement session?

At the end of backlog grooming, you should have a prioritized list of user stories. The items at the top of the backlog should contain the highest level of detail. Larger stories near the top should be broken down into more manageable tasks. The work completed during this activity will lead to a greater shared understanding and smoother sprint planning meetings.

Sprint backlog

Who runs the session?

In many cases, this is the responsibility of the Product Owner or product manager. It doesn’t mean they are solely responsible for holding the backlog refinement meeting. In Agile Scrum teams, the Scrum Master may also lead the session.

Backlog grooming participants

Who should attend the meeting? As backlog grooming is not yet an official Scrum event, there is no consensus on who should participate in the product backlog refinement meeting. However, it’s better to attend it as it is valuable and can lead to a more productive sprint planning.

Sometimes, the whole team’s involvement is not the best option and this is why:

Grooming often happens 2-3 days before the end of the sprint. And the team always has someone who is frantically busy 2 or 3 days before the end of a sprint. If you make that colleague attend another meeting, you will risk the delivery of whatever item he/she is working on.

5 -10% of the effort in each sprint should be spent on backlog grooming. This is actually a good rule. While the team’s involvement would be nice, not all individuals may be able to participate.

How long should grooming take?

There are no set time frames for this session. However, it is recommended to not spend excessive amounts of time on the meeting. They say the ideal length for a backlog refinement session is between 45 minutes to 1 hour.

What are the benefits of backlog grooming? 5 reasons why it is important

1. The process makes the backlog clean

The product backlog can receive inputs from several teams and departments depending on how big your company is. If you left it unattended, it may lead to a messy backlog with an overwhelming number of outdated items. And vice versa, a well-groomed backlog is always in a manageable state.

2. It keeps the backlog relevant

The goal of grooming is to ensure that the backlog is populated with initiatives that are relevant, prioritized, and well documented. However, listing an item on the backlog doesn’t ensure that it will be executed. The refinement process will guarantee that only the most relevant tasks get committed for delivery in the following sprint.

3. It boosts team efficiency

One of the biggest motivations for engaging in product backlog grooming is inspiring teams to continue pushing forward and boosting productivity.

4. It eliminates backlog chaos

All Scrum team members are able to add new items to the backlog that may lead to loss and mess. That is why backlog grooming is a way to take that chaotic list and clean it up to make it a manageable task list for the team to use.

5. It keeps the team updated and provides new information

Unorganized backlogs that have poorly formulated items can lead to miscommunication across teams and bad product decisions. In contrast, a balanced backlog will support effective team conversations and allow people to be on the same page when it comes to new features, user insights, or other initiatives.

Grooming can be also considered as the act of communication. When team members are up to dated, new information is disseminated throughout all departments. This is when everyone is on the same page.

Sprint planning vs backlog grooming

There is a question that often arises: are they similar?

In fact, these Scrum events focus on engaging all participants in the conversation. Both sprint planning and the backlog refinement ceremony are aimed to guarantee that a Scrum team has a shared understanding of a particular body of work.

It is important to have an experienced facilitator, who will be able to guide the conversation professional manner. If you have a person who can act as the “Voice of the Customer”, then both meetings will be successful. As the result, the team will have a well-defined set of user stories split into independent components.

Scrum backlog

7 Tips on How to Deal With the Backlog Grooming

In order to have a healthy backlog, you’d follow 7 tips and here they are:

1. Start with improving your meetings

As you already know, the process of backlog grooming is usually done during a special meeting. Conducting these meetings more efficiently leads to a more efficient backlog.

There is no need to always invite everyone. The Product Owner is the only essential person there. So try to invite those people who are relevant at the time. Be prepared and always have an agenda with clear goals and make sure all attendees are aware of what those goals are. Do not forget to keep the meeting short. Know exactly what must be done, and only meet maybe every two weeks for an hour or two.

How to run a backlog grooming meeting correctly?

Before the session

The key to success lies in prep work beforehand. Refinement can descend into an unstructured and chaotic mess quickly. That is why try to put in some effort upfront to avoid it.

A product manager should prepare story details, the design team should finish mock-ups (if they are required), engineers should read through the stories/tasks beforehand, etc. Do not also forget to revisit your roadmap and the goals.

Prioritize the backlog. Before the session, decide which specific tasks, stories, bugs, or chores you want to talk through with the team.

During the session

Pick a time and room which facilitates a healthy group discussion. To make the grooming session as efficient as possible, follow these rules:

  • Set timebox to 45 minutes or 1 hour.
  • Avoid spending longer than 15 minutes on any single user story if possible.
  • If needed, arrange a separate meeting with the people involved to resolve the outstanding issues.
  • Try to provide data and business rationale to explain why stories are relevant.
  • Admit defeat in case you find yourself in a situation where there’s clearly detail lacking in a story at this point.
  • Make decisions. Different problems need a decision to be made by different people.

After the session

After the meeting, do a little post-meeting pruning of your backlog to make sure it now looks healthier.

You may send around some follow-up notes to clear up any outstanding ambiguity and make it clear that a specific decision was made. Re-engage with your stakeholders and, if needed, set-up smaller break-out meetings to discuss big-ticket items with a lead engineer.

2. Implement the DEEP concept

There is a concept known as “DEEP” that was invented by the Agile advocate Roman Pichler. This acronym stands for detailed appropriately, estimated, emergent and prioritized. This term actually describes a well-managed backlog.

  • Detailed appropriately stands for higher priority items that should have more detail than lower priority ones.
  • Estimated is that the backlog items should be “estimated” to understand the cost to implement.
  • Emergent is about the backlog that is dynamic and always moving from idea to completed work.
  • Prioritize defines which item is most important and must be addressed before the others. They are on the top of the list.

3. Define dependencies

There can be tasks or user stories that are not able to start until another is completed. If not define these dependencies, they can block team members and delay progress. Consider them and identify dependencies when refining the backlog.

4. Do not forget about customers

Backlog grooming must have a direction and a foreseeable goal. The guide must be a customer. Keep customers in mind. The product is being produced for them, so customers are the destination to always keep in sight.

5. Have two sprints worth working on

After the backlog grooming session is done, there should be two sprints worth of user stories that your team is ready to work on. It will mean that they have enough work to keep them engaged until the next backlog grooming.

6. Listen attentively

This tip may seem cheesy; however, it always bears further attention. Though the agenda with stated goals is critical to smart backlog grooming, that doesn’t mean it’s obvious. The PO must listen to what the team has to say, possibly adjusting as necessary.

7. Keep your professional level

The backlog grooming session will contain different points of view but everyone on the team is working towards creating the best product. People can argue about anything but their motivation is experience and passion. The goal of the Product Owner is to keep this in mind and act kindly towards all.

After all, make it fun!

Can the backlog grooming activity be fun? It’s only up to you.

When working with the teammates who are your soul-mates, Scrum ceremonies can be viewed as welcomed breaks from the more intense work of the team.

Good Agile teams can alternate from very intense mental work either alone or in pairs, punctuated with occasional events and activities.

Scrum meetings can even be an excuse for joking around with teammates or just taking a mental recess before diving back into the more intense work. But here, it is important of course to know the frames and limits.

Teams often try their best to make Scrum meetings more interesting. Most of their ideas are centered on when people are late to the Daily Stand Up meeting (for example, singing in front of colleagues or telling a joke), but that doesn’t mean those same creative ideas can’t be used to keep the backlog grooming meeting light.

Conclusion

Backlog refinement does not need to happen every sprint. However, you should budget time for it to keep small, sprint-sized items at the top of the backlog so you can defer investment in items that will be worked on later.

The most important thing here is the optimization of tasks/stories in the backlog for subsequent work with them.

The grooming activity will definitely help you to clarify the relevance of the tasks presented in the backlog, review existing issues, and receive additional info on tasks that are still unclear.