What is a Backlog?

A backlog is a list of tasks required to support a larger strategic plan. In a product development context, it contains a prioritized list of items that the team has agreed to work on next. Typical items on a product backlog include user stories, changes to existing functionality, and bug fixes.

One key component that gives a backlog meaning is that its items are ordered by priority. The items ranked highest on the list represent the most important or urgent items for the team to complete.

Why is the Backlog Important to Product Managers?

Product managers (PM) must focus on high-level objectives to solve problems for their target market. This means PMs spend a large portion of their time on strategic initiatives such as conducting market research, studying their existing products’ usage data, and talking with stakeholders such as their sales teams and customers. PMs then translate what they learn into a product roadmap, which itself is a high-level, strategic plan for the product.

But for PMs to successfully bring products to market, their big-picture plans and goals need to be translated into task-level details. This is where the backlog comes in. It provides a prioritized list of actionable items for the team to work on.

With a backlog, product managers know their team always has a set of next-up tasks, which will keep the product’s development moving forward.

Product backlog vs. product roadmap:

What’s the difference?

What is the Purpose of a Backlog?

A backlog can serve several important functions for an organization.

1. Provide a single source of truth for the team’s planned work.

When a cross-functional team works from a product backlog, the team knows they never need to search for what to work on next, or to wonder in which order they should prioritize their work. It represents an agreed-upon plan for the items the team should tackle next.

2. Facilitate team discussion.

Not every item on a product backlog is fully fleshed out and ready to work on. Sometimes a team will place items on a backlog—at the bottom, to indicate they are not yet priority tasks—as a springboard for further discussion. This makes them a useful tool to facilitate conversations among a cross-functional team. They help the team discuss how to prioritize work on a product, what (if any) interdependencies or conflicts an item might create, etc.

3. Make it easier to assign work.

When a product team gets together to plan work for a specific upcoming time period, a backlog makes it much easier to assign tasks to each person. The tasks are already written down, ordered according to their priority level, and the team can simply hand out the highest-priority items to the most appropriate members of the team.

For agile organizations, in particular, this is where a sprint backlog comes in.

What is a Sprint Backlog?

Product teams that use the agile development framework divide their work into sprints. These are short development time blocks, usually a couple of weeks or a month, during which the team works on a limited set of tasks.

When an agile product team gets together to plan the work for its next sprint, the output of this sprint planning meeting will be the sprint backlog. Then the team will pull the items from this sprint backlog from the larger, more comprehensive product backlog.

Backlog Grooming

Because they’re often used to capture every idea for product-related tasks, backlogs can become unwieldy documents. When these lists become so enormous that nobody has the time to review all of the items on them, backlogs can lose their usefulness.

5 signs your product backlog is a black hole

To combat this threat, one best practice is to conduct regular backlog grooming sessions. When they pull together the cross-functional team for backlog grooming, product managers can:

  • Review the items and discuss how the items at the top support the company’s current strategic objectives.
  • Break down complex tasks into smaller, more actionable ones.
  • Discuss items on the list and clarify any issues or questions the team has about them.
  • Ensure user stories or other tasks at the top of the list meet the team’s definition of “ready”.
  • Help keep it organized, up-to-date, and healthy.

In addition to these tactical benefits, you can hold periodic grooming sessions. Grooming sessions are a great opportunity to bring the entire cross-functional team together to ensure everyone is working toward a common set of strategic goals. When you have an anchor document to facilitate these cross-functional alignment discussions it is yet another reason that every product team should develop and maintain a backlog.

To learn more about product backlogs and backlog grooming, download our free agile product management book.