What is Backlog Grooming?

What is Backlog Grooming?

Backlog grooming, also referred to as backlog refinement or story time, is a recurring event for agile product development teams. The primary purpose of a backlog grooming session is to ensure the next few sprints worth of user stories in the backlog are prepared for sprint planning. Regular backlog grooming sessions also help ensure the right stories are prioritized and that the product backlog does not become a black hole.

Objectives of Backlog Refinement Sessions

Backlog refinement sessions present an opportunity for product managers and product owners to explain the strategic purposes behind prioritized items in the backlog. These conversations can help improve alignment across the cross functional team.

There are also several tactical objectives of backlog grooming sessions:

  • Break down large user stories into smaller tasks.
  • Discuss user stories with the team, answer any related questions to smooth out any ambiguity.
  • Ensure upcoming user stories meet the team’s “definition of ready” by adding key contextual information and acceptance criteria.
  • Sometimes (but not always) the scrum master or project manager and delivery team will use this session to estimate stories and assign story points.

In addition, regular backlog refinement sessions keep the overall health and organization of the backlog in check. When done effectively and on the right cadence, grooming sessions help prevent the backlog from becoming a black hole.

Ideal Outcome of a Backlog Grooming Session

At the end of a backlog refinement session, you should have a prioritized list of user stories. You want the items at the top of the backlog to contain the highest level of detail. Any larger stories near the top should be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. As you work down the list, stories can be larger and further from your team’s “definition of ready.” The work completed during these sessions will ultimately lead to a greater shared understanding and smoother, more efficient sprint planning meetings.

Many agile practitioners say a “DEEP” product backlog is the key outcome of a backlog refinement session.

What is a DEEP Product Backlog?

DEEP is an acronym used to indicate a few key traits of a product backlog.

  • Detailed Appropriately: stories and other items in the backlog contain enough contextual information to be understood and discussed by the cross-functional team.
  • Emergent: it is easy to add new stories and items as new information arises. Nothing is set in stone.
  • Estimated: the amount of effort involved with each user story is roughly estimated with a standardized measure agreed to by the team.
  • Prioritized: items on the backlog are ranked based on their value and the strategic purpose(s) they serve.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you and your team to figure out what you need to completed during backlog grooming based on your own process and needs.

Who Runs Backlog Refinement Sessions?

In many cases the product owner or product manager is tasked with facilitating backlog refinement sessions. However, that doesn’t mean they are solely responsible for holding backlog grooming sessions. It’s also not that uncommon for the Scrum Master (in Agile Scrum teams), a project manager, or other team member to lead these sessions.

It may take some experimentation before you determine who the best person to lead the refinement ceremony is. And that’s ok. Whoever ultimately runs the grooming sessions will be responsible for a few key things:

  • Scheduling the session and ensuring the right people are invited (and actually attend).
  • Keeping conversations on-topic and productively focused.
  • Playing time keeper and moving the conversation forward if the team gets stuck.
  • Sending follow up communication to the team after the session.

Which brings us to our next question: which team members should be invited to backlog grooming sessions?

Who Attends Backlog Grooming Meetings?

These events are meant to be collaborative. That means the entire cross-functional team should be represented at refinement sessions. You need the combined expertise of the various functions on your team to effectively flesh out your user stories.

At a high level, here’s a few different functions that need representation in refinement sessions:

  • Someone to facilitate the session: It could be a product owner, product manager, scrum master, project manager, or even an agile coach or consultant.
  • Product owner and/or other product team representatives.
  • Delivery team. (if the team is too large to include, you can consider inviting management representatives.)
  • QA representatives

Also, a quick note about invitees. While you want to encourage cross-functional collaboration, you need to ensure you don’t bring in too many ideas and opinions. So, only invite the people who are absolutely critical for the task at hand.

While executive stakeholders may want to participate (and have the best of intentions), they usually don’t need to be present during grooming meetings. As the product owner or product manager, your conversations with stakeholders should happen in advance of backlog refinement sessions, not during.

How Long Should Backlog Grooming Take?

There is no set time frame for a backlog refinement session. That said, it is not advised to spend excessive amounts of time on these sessions. The general consensus around the ideal length for a backlog grooming session is between 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Efficiency is key with grooming sessions. You need to keep things moving along and ensure conversations stay on track. Some teams decide to assign time limits to each user story to keep things moving. This is where the project manager, scrum master, or other facilitator can be incredibly helpful. Even then, it might seem like you’re squeezing a lot of work into a short block of time, but if you’re properly prepared you can easily have effective sessions.

How Should a Product Owner Prepare for Backlog Grooming?

Everyone who attends a backlog grooming session should do some form of preparation ahead of time. This especially applies to product owners and product managers, whose failure to prepare can lead to frustratingly inefficient sessions.

So before a backlog refinement session, there are a few things to do to get you in the right mindset.

  1. Revisit Strategic Objectives: Start by taking a step back and reminding yourself of the overarching strategy outlined in the product roadmap. You don’t need to overhaul the entire roadmap every time you prepare for backlog grooming, but you do need to keep high-level objectives top of mind.
  2. Talk to Stakeholders: Regularly sync up with both internal (executives) and external stakeholders (customers) to get feedback. As a product person, you are a liaison between stakeholders and strategy.
  3. Review Key Metrics: If you’re running any experiments (which you should be!), you’ll want to check in on results. You’ll also want to take a look at the health of any key metrics your team is monitoring to take note of any significant changes.

Once you’ve done a little review, you should feel prepared enough to answer the following questions:

  • What are the key themes and stories at the moment?
  • Why are these top-priority right now?
  • What is their value and how do they match up with our strategic objectives?

With the answers to those questions in mind, you can start looking at what the next few sprints might look like. Most likely, you’ll need to re-prioritize the backlog based on new findings and evolving needs. It’s wise to shift around priorities before the backlog grooming session rather than during it. However, some teams prefer to re-prioritize user stories in the backlog together so everyone can discuss why things are moving around.

Ideally, you’ll have the next 2 or 3 sprints worth of stories prioritized before the grooming session. They don’t need to be fully developed stories with comprehensive acceptance criteria just yet. Prepare yourself to communicate not only what they are but also why they’re important. If you can’t explain why something is a high priority in the backlog, it isn’t ready to be there.

Furthermore, we advise you give the rest of your cross-functional team a heads up before your grooming session. Send them a list of stories that are up for discussion ahead of the meeting so that they can set some time aside and prepare as well. A well-prepared team leads to a productive backlog grooming session.