A few years ago, I was the acting product manager at a startup, developing an enterprise software product. Building the product was hard: it was taking longer to develop than everyone expected (of course). The complexity of what we were trying to accomplish became more evident as each day passed.
The product backlog I managed grew daily. I heard requests from customers, domain experts, consultants, our development team, and internal stakeholders. And I diligently added the stories to the backlog. Feature request? Add it to the backlog. Bug found? Add it to the backlog. Corner case we needed to handle one day? Backlog.
Declaring Backlog Bankruptcy
I diligently prioritized and managed the epics and stories, moving them into the next two or three sprints in the sprint backlog. As the months passed, it became clear there was no way we’d be able to develop what was in the product backlog over the next few months. There was rising frustration from the whole team at the pace of development, partly from the perception that we would never get to everything.
And every day, my stress grew as the backlog ballooned.
What was the point of diligently managing the backlog when it would be impossible to accomplish it all? Especially when everything a few months in the future would likely be different?
So along with the CTO, I made a decision – we’d declare backlog bankruptcy.
Every story, issue, bug, and idea that we weren’t planning to release in a near-term sprint, I would delete. Clicking Delete was one of the harder things I’ve done. Over 600 items… gone.
But then something interesting happened. There were no repercussions from that decision. And I got a sense of relief after eliminating the cognitive overhead created by the backlog. And after ruthlessly prioritizing and limiting what we added to the backlog, we got the product to market faster. Starting from scratch felt GOOD.
The lesson declaring backlog bankruptcy taught me was that if an idea has high enough value for customers, it will come back. It will bubble up to the top. I no longer keep massive lists of all the ideas and things I want to do in the future. Sometimes the simplicity this creates in your product is a positive experience for customers.
It also taught me more about the purpose of the product backlog – it’s not a place for every future opportunity. We needed to have a process around what gets added to the backlog.
What Does a Healthy Backlog Look Like?
Every organization doing agile software development does it a little bit differently. My approach isn’t for everyone, especially for organizations that need to have more certainty about their product roadmap more than a few months out.
For me, I’ve been a part of startups using only some variant of scrum. We plan the stories a few sprints ahead, guided by the epics and themes on the product roadmap. That’s typically enough for any product manager. Ideally, there aren’t hundreds of stories in the backlog.
When the product backlog is too long, it clouds the vision and creates underlying stress of what’s not getting done. A shorter backlog frees you up to think about what’s most important. It improves creativity. Think in timeframes of perhaps three to six months out.
Think about your process for what gets added to the backlog. It’s not for every possible “future” idea that you haven’t necessarily committed to. Yet you still likely want to track ideas and inspiration you’re getting from customer interviews. And you might want to remember who asked you for a particular feature so that you have context. For those situations, I recommend creating a separate “future opportunity” list, so you have a place to add your learnings as you proceed with customer discovery on the idea.
After having been involved in launching multiple products over the years it’s clear to me that things you think are super important today aren’t as pressing a few months from now. So by adding every idea to the backlog, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
But the stories and epics that you believe will add lots of customer value in the short term go for it. Also, it’s good practice to include bugs, tracking them and peppering them into near term sprints.
Warning Signs Your Backlog is Unhealthy
As a product manager, how do you know you’ve entered the dangerous territory with your backlog? Here are some of the things I’ve found to watch out for:
- Your backlog has become a dumping ground for every random idea from every stakeholder. Sure, it feels good to be able to tell a vital stakeholder you’ve “noted” their opinion, but is the minuscule, incremental cognitive overhead worth it if you do that 100 or 1,000 times?
- You’re adding ideas that you’d like to implement “some day.” This thinking is long-term, and because everything is guaranteed to change from a product, customer, and competitive standpoint, what’s the point? I suggest deleting anything in your backlog that is older than six months.
- You’re spending hours every month prioritizing items that aren’t winding up in your short term sprint backlog. Be thinking every day about what will provide customer value in the short term.
Sometimes You Need to Add More
Now, to be clear, there are many situations where you might want to add something to the backlog even if it’s not going into a near-term sprint. For example, if your CEO believes a feature has merit, and you want to validate the idea and at the same time let them know you’ve noted it in the product backlog.
If you absolutely must keep a long product backlog because it’s necessary from a corporate or process standpoint, try organizing it or grouping it by a theme, such as “near term” and “long term.” That might help a little bit with your sanity.
As I mentioned previously, you don’t need to track everything that goes into your product backlog. You can use a separate “opportunity” or idea backlog, such as the Parking Lot in ProductPlan. This approach is a great way to capture ideas that you haven’t committed to, and that needs further validation.
My decision many years ago to declare backlog bankruptcy has yielded so many lessons for me since then. By the way, out of extra caution, before I clicked Delete, I exported my product backlog. And I never went back to look at it.