Backlog Refinement

When I come into organisations as an Agile Coach, one of the common areas of frustration with Scrum is the Sprint Planning Meeting.  “These meetings take forever!” my clients complain.  An easy way to make Sprint Planning meetings both shorter and more effective is through the regular use of Product Backlog Refinement Sessions.

Sometimes called StoryTime sessions, the purpose of these meetings is to make improvements to the Product Backlog.  That definition is deliberately vague because the meeting is quite versatile.  A Backlog Refinement session can be used to:

  • Write user stories (it is possible to build a Product Backlog “from scratch” in a series of one or more StoryTime sessions)
  • Break down user stories that are too big (epics)
  • Improve user stories that are poorly written
  • Estimate backlog items
  • Add acceptance criteria
  • Look deeper into the backlog to do longer-range technical planning

That last bullet is an important one.  Some people mistakenly believe that doing Scrum means never focusing on anything but what is coming up in the next sprint.  This is not true.  Instead, backlog refinement sessions are a great place for a Product Owner to say “The March release is coming along great, so today I would like to spend time looking at the user stories I hope to get in the July release.”  Doing this gives teams an opportunity to look further into the future of the product, and can alert them to technical challenges and “gotcha’s”.

How can you hold an effective Product Backlog grooming session?  Here are some guidelines:

  • Have a goal in mind – in each of these sessions the Product Owner should come in saying, “Here is what I would like to accomplish today.”  This can be an agreed-upon goal with the team, but the point is the goal should be set before the meeting starts.  Wandering into a backlog refinement session saying, “Well, ummm…what do we want to talk about today?” is a guarantee that time will be wasted.
  • Schedule the session to support and improve the next Sprint Planning meeting – a good backlog refinement session leaves everyone involved feeling familiar with the product backlog, gives them a clear understanding of the goals for the next sprint, and means they can hit the ground running in the Sprint Planning meeting.  So schedule backlog refinement sessions to precede the next Sprint Planning by at least a couple of days.
  • Limit “chicken” participation – known as “chickens” in Scrum, stakeholders can be effective participants in a backlog refinement session.  But limit their numbers.  If you have, for example, 10 stakeholders from whom you want to gather feedback, get it from them in a series of 2 – 3 meetings, not one big one.  Remember, stakeholders often do not understand the rules of Scrum as well as the team, Product Owner and ScrumMaster do.  They often do not have “good Scrum manners”, and you may find a large group of them can quickly take over your meeting, making it chaotic and less effective.

Making regular use of backlog refinement sessions is one of the best ways to ensure Sprint Planning meetings run more smoothly.  They improve the quality of the product backlog, give everyone involved more familiarity with that is being asked for and make it easier to reach a Sprint Commitment with confidence.