Why is backlog maintenance important?
Maintaining a backlog, frankly just sucks.
It's a tedious task that teams rarely enjoy doing, but left unattended, will almost certainly lead to a variety of negative effects. I've often witnessed in my career that diagnosing a team's (product + engineering) inability to deliver on time, requires me to look at the backlog first!
The purpose of regularly maintaining (or grooming) a backlog is to ensure that the backlog is always up-to-date and that the team is always working on the most important issues. This is especially important for teams that are working on multiple projects at once, as it can be difficult to keep track of all the issues that need to be addressed.
Failure to maintain a backlog is a common occurence I've witnessed in my career and the effects can manifest in a variety of ways. However, the most common effects are:
- The team is working on issues that are not the most important (lack of prioritization)
- Product Management is unable to provide accurate estimates on when a feature will be delivered (lack of estimation) to customers and management.
5 Tips to a Healthy Backlog
Keep your backlog CURRENT and RELEVANT - The backlog should be updated regularly to reflect the current state of the project. This includes adding new issues, removing completed issues, and updating the status of existing issues. This also means regularly pruning OLD issues. For example: if an issue has been sitting in the backlog for more than 3 months, it's likely that it's no longer relevant. If it is, it should be re-prioritized and re-estimated. (3 months is a good rule of thumb, but it depends on your team's velocity).
Backlog Issues should be ordered by priority - The backlog should be ordered by priority, with the most important issues at the top. This allows the team to focus on the most important issues first, and ensures that they are always working on the most important issues. This also helps Product Management to provide accurate estimates on when a feature will be delivered to customers and management.
Estimate your Issues - This may be controversial for some, but I believe that every issue should be estimated in a backlog. Estimaes will help guide the team on ranking priority and will help provide better accuracy on delivery dates and resource allocation. Frankly, I'm not sure how you can prioritize a backlog without estimates... and if you aren't prioritizing you're not going to be able to forecast delivery dates.
Backlog Issues should have a clear Definition of Done - Garbage belongs in the bin, not the backlog. If issues are arriving in the backlog without a clear definition of Done or Acceptance Criteria that everyone understands, then they should be rejected. Also, see point #3 above. If you don't have a clear definition of Done, how can you estimate?
Categorize and Tag your Issues - Tags and Labels should be used to help categorize or group issues together. This will help Product Management and Engineering to quickly filter and find issues that are related. Categorized issue, for instance, can help with prioritization as engineers can knock-out multiple issues that are related, and in the same part of the codebase, at the same time.
Maintaining your backlog is an important ritual step in the Agile process. Backlogs act as a living queue of work that the business has prioritized for the team to work on. Without proper grooming, the backlog can become stale and lose its value, leading to a variety of negative issues.
For those of you using NitroIQ, we've made it easy to maintain your backlog with our ability to auto-score your backlog, highlight issues that require further refinement and are "too old", and increased visibility into your backlog health with our Backlog Doom Score.