Backlog Refinement (Backlog Grooming): How to Embed Best Practices

Team Member Participating in Backlog Refinement Meeting

Behind every efficient and effective agile team, there is a beautifully managed, refined backlog. Every item in the backlog is clear and defined, with a reasonable time estimate. There's no need for the team to go hunting for more context or information as all the detail needed is right there, ready for someone to take the task and get to work.

But this won't happen by chance. In fact, it takes strategic, deliberate thinking to maintain a well-managed backlog, through a process called Backlog Refinement (or Backlog Grooming). It also takes commitment, as refining the backlog is not a one-off task. It is a continual practice that needs to be embedded as a habit within a team's regular working cadence.

But if Backlog Refinement doesn't become embedded, it can soon fall by the wayside. And when that happens, just watch the backlog become a free-for-all wishlist, full of undefined and unconnected items that lack rhyme or reason. Follow our recommendations to stop this from happening.

What is Backlog Refinement?

Backlog Refinement is the practice of reviewing the items in your project or product backlog. And the goal of this review process is pretty simple: once a backlog item has been refined, it should be in a ready state to move into a Sprint. This means that the item will have an appropriate priority assigned to it, important information will be in place, and a realistic time estimate agreed, so that the item is ready to be worked on. Even if the item isn’t moved into a Sprint straight after it has been refined, the point is that it should be ready to move.

Indeed, during refinement you should also check that the items are still actually relevant and that they haven’t morphed into something else in the meantime.

The phrase ‘Backlog Grooming’ refers to exactly the same practice, but the term has fallen out of favor. Besides, ‘refining’ is a much better description of the aim you are trying to achieve with this practice. You’re not just grooming and trimming things out of the backlog; you’re also taking items within the backlog and developing the context around them so that they are easier to action in future Sprints. For this reason, you also shouldn't consider Backlog Refinement vs. Sprint planning as an either/or activity. Consistent, embedded use of Backlog Refinement techniques will make planning for Sprints easier.

Why is Backlog Refinement Worth Doing?

Running an agile team and working in Sprints requires formalized practices, regular time pressures, and for some it necessitates additional training. Implementing agile across an organization can also take some real doing, as it goes against the grain for many people. The change can be quite disruptive. And yet people still do it. Why?

Because they expect that the results will be worth it. They expect that it will help their teams work more efficiently, get better work done in less time, and create tangible value at far more regular intervals.

Being ‘agile’ means being change responsive and ready. It means that you commit to the regular delivery of increments. To achieve this, agile teams need to be focused and effective.

Put simply, a messy backlog is a barrier to agility. If you don’t go through a process of project or product backlog refinement, you’ll waste time trying to make up for insufficient information. You’ll spend more time in Sprint planning just trying to understand which tasks need to be dealt with first, rather than creating your plan and cracking on with the work.

If you are adapting agile to work on time-bound projects, Backlog Refinement will be particularly vital. In order to make your deadline, you may have to sacrifice some of the 'nice to have' items in the backlog in order to get the priority items finished and polished. Backlog Refinement will help you prioritize and produce decent estimates for each item, giving you a much better overall understanding of the entire backlog, and whether it is feasible to complete all that work before the project deadline.

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Who Should Be Involved in Backlog Refinement?

The whole project team has a part to play in this practice, as everyone has different expertise to bring to the table. The Project Lead and the Delivery Team should be actively involved in refinement. As the point of the process is to refine items so they are ready for upcoming Sprints, the team should see the clear value in taking the time to add detail to the work that will be coming their way two or three Sprints down the line. But they are far from the only people who can be involved.  

Ultimately, the question of who attends Backlog Grooming sessions is dependent on the context and information you need. Client services or account managers, for instance, can shed valuable light on the client’s perspective. Depending on the item in question, the client themselves might want to be directly involved in the refinement activity.

To Meet, or Not to Meet?

It is important to bear in mind that Backlog Refinement is an ongoing, good-practice activity that effective agile teams embrace and make their own. Unlike scrum ceremonies, such as the daily Stand-Up, or the Sprint Retrospective, it does not refer to a formalized meeting.

However, it can be very valuable to establish a regular meeting to refine backlog items, as this embeds the practice (making sure it doesn’t get neglected), and ensures that refinement becomes a collaborative activity. If you do decide to set up a recurring, regular Backlog Grooming meeting, the Scrum Master or Project Lead might direct the meeting. But, if you are trying to ascertain how much time an item is going to take to execute, the team members who will be working on the task are often best placed to make that estimate.

In order for the refinement process to be considered a success, the team needs to agree that the item has been refined to the extent that it is now actionable. As a result, there would be little point in going through the process without consulting the team. Get them involved, so that they can verify that items are being refined to the correct extent.

Best Practices for a Successful Backlog Refinement Meeting

  • Don’t attempt to look at everything

Your Backlog Refinement Meeting will naturally be longer than your regular Stand-Up meetings. But you don’t want it to be an hours-long slog that leaves the team frustrated and behind on their work. If the backlog is extensive, it is unrealistic to address every item.

Be reasonable about how much you can achieve in, say, an hour. Whoever is running the meeting (whether that be a Scrum Master, Project Manager, or Product Owner) should prepare beforehand by looking through the backlog and choosing which items to look at.

Once a regular cadence of Refinement Meetings is underway, this will be less of a challenge, as everything will be pretty well managed. But this is another reason why establishing good, regular practices around Backlog Refinement is so important.

  • Involve additional stakeholders if needed

One of the objectives of the Backlog Refinement session is to make sure that all the information needed to begin a task is in place, so the task is in a ready state to be progressed as quickly as possible. The best way to gather some of this information might be to loop in the relevant stakeholders. Expertise is an incredible resource; don’t lose out on the expertise of your stakeholders by keeping a narrow focus on the scrum team and the scrum team only.

  • Agree on a “Definition of Ready”

Consider what you and your team need to be in place in order to get working on a task without delay: your backlog items are only fit for purpose once this criterion has been met. But, equally, you don’t want to spend a disproportionate amount of time on Backlog Grooming. Once an item is in a workable state, you don’t need to keep refining it. 

One popular Product Backlog Refinement technique, which works equally well in a project context, is to define what a ‘Ready’ item looks like. You then use this definition as your yardstick to check that items are refined to a consistent level, ensuring that you capture just the right amount of detail for each item - not too much, but not too little.

For instance, you and your team might decide that a ‘Ready’ item has a time estimate associated with it, all tasks and dependant subtasks defined, and an ‘owner’ for the item agreed. You can then move on from that item, knowing that it’s ready to go straight into a Sprint at the next opportunity.

Refined backlog item in Forecast

A backlog item in Forecast that has been refined, with detail added, dependent tasks mapped out, and time estimates given.

Manage Your Backlog

It is easier to embed best practices in your agile teams when you have strong processes and clear oversight. If you run agile in a project-based business, Forecast is the ultimate platform to help you stay on top of your portfolio of projects by automating admin, surfacing financial insights, and creating space for collaborative work.

By integrating seamlessly with JIRA, Forecast neatly steps into your existing tech stack without requiring a complicated and disruptive transition. Any detail added to a ticket in JIRA automatically syncs with the associated task in Forecast, meaning that all information is captured regardless of which system it was created in. 

Try Forecast for free today by accessing our 14-day trial below, and see how you can up your game in agile.

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