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Declutter Your Product Team with Backlog Grooming

We all have that one drawer in our house. It’s not full of junk, exactly, but it’s pretty chaotic, and overflowing with random stuff. 

Everything seemed important when you added it to the drawer. But now, you’re not sure what half of these things are, whether you need them, and why you put them there in the first place!

On product teams, it’s easy for your backlog to turn into that junk drawer.

The backlog should be full of clear, actionable items that will turn your roadmap into reality. But it can quickly get so jam-packed with tasks, ideas, and feedback that even opening it feels overwhelming. 

Cleaning out that drawer is intimidating. But without some decluttering and organization, it’s never going to be tidy or useful. Backlog grooming is how you get that drawer beautifully organized — or make sure it never gets messy in the first place.

Today, we’ll explain how to create a backlog that actually helps your team get things done, and share expert tips from our team on how to keep it that way.

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What’s a product backlog?

Let’s start with some basics. In agile product development, the product backlog breaks the roadmap down into tangible, concrete steps. The backlog is (or should be) a list of tasks you’ll need to complete to launch a new product or new features. 

Unlike the roadmap, which speaks broadly to your vision for the finished product, the backlog is tactical and detail-oriented. Great backlog items are like SMART goals — specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. 

While many people might contribute and refer to the backlog, the product owner or manager is typically responsible for maintaining it.

The Backlog holds items like:

  • Bug fixes
  • User stories 
  • Refactoring needs and tech debt fixes
  • Ideas, thoughts, and feedback from stakeholders
  • Feature requests 
  • General to-do list items, timely or not 

The “perfect” backlog is a master to-do list, from which you’ll pick items to focus on in each sprint. 

But realistically, the backlog can be looser and more amorphous than that. It often includes changes and fixes you’re considering making one day, not just items to cross off this week or this sprint. 

That’s exciting — it means the backlog is full of potential and possibility! But it’s also easy for it to fill up with feedback from users, team members, and stakeholders, at every stage of the development process. 

That can quickly become problematic, especially as you get deeper into development and the roadmap — and product — itself starts to change. 

If you’re not careful, all these different types of content can lead your backlog into ‘junk drawer’ territory. 

What’s backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming is like sorting through and organizing the items in that junk drawer. And making the sometimes tough decision that certain items do need to go to the trash can.

It’s about getting backlog items to a place where they’re ready to become reality in your next sprint. Agile, and many other flavors of product development, encourage teams to engage in backlog grooming regularly, so they’re organized and ready when it’s time to start planning and building. 

Backlog grooming is also called backlog refinement, backlog management, or even ‘story time,’ because you’ll be discussing user stories.

After backlog grooming, your team will be ready to choose a few high-priority items to tackle in each sprint.

Benefits of Backlog Grooming
Credit: medium.com

Backlog grooming could include:

  • Archiving irrelevant or out-of-date items
  • Breaking down large items into manageable chunks
  • Adding context to backlog items to make them more actionable 
  • Discussing how important or urgent backlog items are 
  • Estimating how much time and energy will be involved in completing items 

Who’s involved in backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming is typically led by the product owner or manager. The team will talk through each item on the backlog, discussing whether it’s relevant and if it’s detailed enough to be put into action. 

Backlog grooming is a cross-functional activity, involving people from all relevant areas of your product team — as long as they have a good reason to be there. However, backlog grooming typically wouldn’t involve executives and high-level stakeholders. The big-picture view offered by your roadmap is more their domain. 

Nearly all teams spend time on backlog refinement. But if you don’t have full context and information for every item, backlog grooming becomes exponentially harder. 

If your backlog isn’t organized, grooming it is like trying to clear out a junk drawer that dozens of people, all with different goals, have been adding to for months or years. 

When the backlog starts weighing you down

The backlog is meant to be a list of must-do items, not a catchall for miscellaneous thoughts and requests. 

When the backlog starts functioning differently than how it’s intended, it creates mismatched expectations for your team. That’s a recipe for confusion — plus, where’s your actual to-do list supposed to go? 

Watch out for these two common types of clutter that can turn your backlog into a junk drawer. 

Out-of-date, expired backlog items

Recency is everything when it comes to backlog grooming. Your team’s exact vision for the product might change from sprint to sprint, or even from day to day. 

Feedback that was relevant to an older, expired version of your product has no place in your backlog. It will only confuse and mislead people, and can even harm your finished product if someone puts it into action. 

Feedback shared by less-relevant users

Make sure you aren’t prioritizing feedback from non-ideal users. For example, maybe you were initially targeting small business owners, but now you’ve realized the product is a better fit for enterprise human resources teams. 

If your core audience has shifted, feedback from old audiences shouldn’t be the priority — or likely, even considered at all. 

Managing your backlog like a pro

At its best, your backlog is a meticulously organized treasure trove of ideas. It’s one centralized place to store everything it’ll take to turn your product vision into a reality. 

From the experts on our team, here are some tips to help you create a backlog that’s clear, specific, and actionable. 

Don’t be afraid to remove items

Have items been sitting on your backlog for months (or years), getting pushed down by high-priority tasks? 

Do your team a favor, and take them off everyone’s plate. Some product tools, like Linear, even allow you to automatically archive tasks that haven’t been opened in a long time. 

If these tasks become relevant again, you can re-open them — or just make a fresh task! This strategy also helps you avoid accidentally duplicating items, which can happen when people make new entries without looking through the backlog to see if anything similar was already there. It’s especially common at large organizations, or on long-running projects.

Enrich every backlog item with context

Without context and background information, user stories, feature requests, and other pieces of feedback are useless — or even actively misleading. Unless you know exactly who added them and why your team won’t be able to effectively prioritize or discuss backlog items. Make sure every single item on your backlog has this crucial context. Include details about who provided it, along with the date it was added.Was it a user, team member, or stakeholder? If it was a user or product tester, what kind of customer profile do they fit into? Later on, during backlog grooming, these details will help you understand whether items are still relevant, and how they should be prioritized.

Segment your backlog by different types of work

One of the reasons it’s easy for the backlog to get messy is because it holds so many different types of information. 

Bug fixes, strategic feature work, infrastructural changes, and random ideas for future improvements are of wildly different importance — there’s no reason they should be treated exactly the same way!

Try dividing your backlog into categories that are most relevant for your team. Then refine each backlog separately, and block out time for these different kinds of work. That way, you’re not trying to address small bugs and strategic improvements in a single session. 

Consider another system for managing feedback, ideas, and user stories

Some random bits of input and feedback won’t belong in your backlog. But they’re still valuable, and worth saving. 

A better model for managing these items might be a tool like LaunchNotes, which allows you to store and organize feedback from everyone working on and using the product throughout the development process. 

This alternate system isn’t your hyper-focused backlog, but it’s also not a disorganized junk drawer. Think of it as an organized, adaptable filing system, to manage everyone’s feedback and use it to make your product as helpful as possible. 

Organize feedback, accelerate development, and get the right features to market faster

LaunchNotes isn’t just about streamlining how you handle feedback. It’s a more efficient, AI-augmented way to elevate your entire product development process. 

Keep everyone in touch and informed by building dynamic shareable roadmaps, unlocking continuous product communication, and capturing meaningful, contextual insights. 

If you’re curious, try out a demo to see how it works. Or, join Launch Awesome, our Slack community. It’s the best place for Product Managers and Marketers to connect, learn from each other, and discuss how to build better products and level up their careers.

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