The product backlog is more than a simple to-do task list. It’s essential to constantly adjust it to the changing priorities and needs of your organization. While grooming the backlog, a product owner can make errors that can prove costly. In this article, we suggest some best practices to avoid some common mistakes and manage your backlog efficiently.

The Default Approach to Managing a Backlog

By default, a backlog is created with a defined scope that applies to either a company’s product, a collection of products, or a specific product line. Some owners divide their backlog into two parts: short-term, implementable backlog (also referred to as sprint backlog since it can incorporate one or multiple sprints) and long-term main backlog. The short-term backlog enables you to concentrate on urgent items and build them quickly while simultaneously keeping an overview of all the functionalities in the main backlog.

At the start, both backlogs begin as a list of functions. But, a sprint backlog is typically grouped into user stories and epics for effortless execution, while the master backlog stays the same. The product manager decides which items need to be shifted between the lists, and when.

Negative Impacts of Backlog Mismanagement

A large and mismanaged backlog can create the following issues.

Disruptions to Development

Since it is difficult to reorganize a big and mismanaged backlog, ideas are either included ahead of the backlog or towards the end of the list. Adding at the front may invalidate the remaining portions of the backlog, while adding items at the end could delay its execution.

Impossible to Prioritize

Every item in a backlog of thousands of items may seem insignificant. It can also look pointless to add new ideas. If backlogs become too large because of mismanagement, they can become a bin of uncompleted (or never-to-be-completed) tasks.

Maintenance Expenses

Queues are costly, and every item needs continuous attention to remain valid. Thus, it becomes an arduous task to groom a big backlog, and the entire backlog might get continuously ignored.

How to Identify Backlog Mismanagement

A mismanaged backlog resembles a free-for-all collection. It becomes a long, unorganized, ever-growing document that stores all the thoughts of your team members about the product. The backlog could even begin to look like a list of good and lousy ideas, high-priority and low-priority tasks, and so on.

This lengthy list makes it difficult for you to identify high-priority items. You might have a hard time selecting the proper tasks to place into your long-term development cycles or short-term sprints. In fact, the items in your backlog may simply be ignored without being executed at all.

Other symptoms of backlog mismanagement

  • It's hidden: Only the product owner has access to the backlog, and they introduce it to the team members only during sprint planning sessions.
  • It's stale: The backlog is not refined or updated for a long period of time. It may have a year’s worth of enhancements, defects, and requests, and a number of them might not be valuable any more.
  • It's unordered: There is no sequence or prioritization, and the team is unsure about what to work on next without the product owner's guidance.
  • It's coupled: All the stories need to be done for a product delivery. This means the team has to complete numerous sprints before any valuable item is deployed.
  • It's vague: Nobody knows the purpose of the backlog items. There are only some words for acceptance parameters, and the stories do not cater to user needs.

Who on your team is impacted by backlog issues?

Successful backlog handling means frequent and consistent collaboration between developers and product managers. Thus, a mismanaged backlog can impact the product owner, managers, development team, and other key stakeholders.

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Deceptively Bad Backlog Habits

The following issues may seem like acceptable practices for backlog management, but they can actually create issues for your team.

Entirely controlled by the product owner

It sounds good for the product owner to have complete control over backlog management. But ideally, the scrum master and the entire team should collaboratively take part in the grooming process.

Separate backlogs

Separate backlogs like SAFe (Scale Agile Framework) backlogs may look advantageous for experienced organizations, as they can potentially be used to improve the conventional backlog. The reality, however, is that they can create confusion, and new agile teams should generally avoid them.

Constant re-prioritization of work

It’s good for the product owner to re-prioritize backlog tasks based on new requirements, refining estimates, and customer feedback. However, once the team members start to work, the product owner should make minimal changes, as they can affect the developers and impact focus, morale, and flow.

Most severe backlog management mistakes

Now, let’s look at the most severe backlog errors that a product owner can make and their effects.

Not knowing when to say no

You cannot agree to all customer requests, as it will make your backlog grow significantly and cause your developers to spend a lot of their time on needless functionalities. The smart solution is to identify the 80% of value that can be delivered with 20% of the features. This approach will help you eliminate the effects of an oversized backlog created by accommodating too many requests.

Lack of vision

If the product owner lacks a clear vision, the backlog will not have a direction and will be impossible to prioritize. This results in the creation of a backlog in which all items need to be performed. To prevent this, the product owner should have a proper vision and share it with all the stakeholders. If the product owner needs assistance, then the team can collaboratively plan and implement a sprint goal to focus on needs and actual business value.

Can't prioritize

Product owners should understand that everything cannot be done, or else they could experience backlog overload, which can increase the team’s overall workload. In scrum, prioritization is vital, and you should know where to invest your money, effort, and time. If there is a backlog overload, focus only on the value-adding tasks, and do not try to execute all of the proposed ideas.

Lack of business knowledge

A product owner should have deep understanding of the competitive arena, market, and customers. Without this expertise, you could get involved in the political fights of various stakeholder groups ,and your product may fail to deliver real value. To avoid this, a product owner needs to have a clear theory of the market, even if they are not technically tasked with that responsibility.

No experimentation

A product owner who is not willing to experiment may not be able to adapt to unexpected changes in the product roadmap. Approaches such as the Lean Startup methodology can be implemented to avoid rigidity in backlog management.

Too many products

Some product owners are saddled with multiple projects and, as a result, cannot dedicate the necessary time and focus to any single one. The solution is to concentrate on making a single product successful instead of constantly switching context and focus.

Poor collaboration

Some product owners like to stay away from the team and function only as backlog managers. They might inform the team members what they should do without soliciting input and blame them if they don’t obtain the desired sprint results. The solution is for the product owner to act as part of the scrum team and collaborate with members to achieve the sprint objective and deliver value.

Best Practices for Backlog Management

Finally, let's cover a few best practices that you can adopt to properly manage your backlog.

Keep it to a manageable size

Avoid maintaining an exhaustive backlog of hundreds of items, as it will be hard to manage. Say no to needless items and aim to maximize outcome while minimizing input.

Stick to a Single Backlog

Do not maintain a separate backlog that contains all the ideas proposed by customers. You may wish to adopt this strategy to keep tabs on all requests. But it is wiser to own, maintain, and organize a single backlog, because if an idea is valuable, it will surely come up sooner than later in this backlog. By leaving low-priority items off of the backlog, you can be clear about your focus and build openness and trust with your customers.

Delegate Some Tasks

As a product owner, you may wish to manage all backlog tasks yourself, including functional designs, acceptance criteria, user stories, and so on. But it’s smarter to assign some of this work to your team members so that you can concentrate on the vision, long-term roadmap, business value, market, and stakeholders.

Know the Items in Your Backlog

Do not let everyone freely add tickets to your product backlog, as it can lead to issues with manageability, ordering, clarity, and transparency. You should clearly know the items currently in your backlog and the ones you rejected. This knowledge will help you maintain full control over your backlog and manage it intelligently.

Clear Your Backlog with Crowdbotics Experts

Crowdbotics’ PMs are experts when it comes to product strategy and task prioritization, and they can work with your existing team or manage entire custom builds for you from scratch. If you are under-resourced or dealing with an insurmountable backlog, get in touch with us today.