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Agile & Development: Sprint Backlog

What Is a Sprint Backlog?

A sprint backlog is the set of items that a cross-functional product team selects from its product backlog to work on during the upcoming sprint.

Typically the team will agree on these items during its sprint planning session. In fact, the sprint backlog represents primary output of sprint planning.

Sprint Backlog vs. Product Backlog: What’s the Difference?

The product backlog is the comprehensive list of product-related tasks that, at any given time, should encompass all of the things the cross-functional team has agreed to work on eventually, either to bring the product to market or to improve it. When these items are kept in order of priority, a product backlog should communicate which user stories, features, bug fixes, and other to-do items the development team should work on next.

You can also think of the product backlog as a tactical, task-level breakdown of the strategic plan outlined in your product roadmap.

With that in mind, a sprint backlog is a much shorter list pulled from the items on the product backlog — specifically, those items the team identifies during a sprint planning meeting as the most important tasks to complete next.

Here are a few key takeaways about the distinction between sprint backlogs and product backlogs, and how the two work together:

1. Sprint backlog items should be taken directly from the product backlog.

2. While the product backlog can be changed frequently at any time, according to the always changing realities in an organization or in the market, the sprint backlog should remain as fixed as possible throughout the duration of the sprint.

3. The product team should conduct regular product backlog grooming sessions, to ensure that sprint planning meetings are productive and that the team is able to quickly identify the right tasks to place on the next sprint backlog.

4. The top items on a well-groomed, prioritized product backlog will often represent the upcoming sprint backlog.

5. If the team is unable to complete (or even begin) certain sprint backlog items by the end of the sprint, the team might choose to add those unfinished jobs either to the next sprint backlog — if they are still deemed high priority — or to the product backlog to be addressed again in the future.

Who Owns the Sprint Backlog?

According to the scrum framework, the entire agile team — scrum master, product owner, and development team members — will share ownership of the sprint backlog. This is because all members of the team will bring unique knowledge and insights to the project at the beginning of each sprint.

The product owner might be aware of new market realities or changing organizational priorities that will necessitate prioritizing specific user stories or fixes. The developers might have learned in recent sprints that certain development work is taking longer than the team had initially anticipated. All of these insights will help the team arrive at a more feasible, strategically sound sprint backlog.

Although choosing the tasks for a sprint backlog is a team effort, it is important to note that the team will often choose items based on how well they align with the sprint goal, which the product owner sets. In this sense, the product owner will guide the sprint backlog decisions by first establishing the overall goal for the sprint.

What Goes into a Sprint Backlog?

As Mountain Goat Software’s Mike Cohn explains, sprint backlogs are often built in spreadsheets, but they can also be developed and maintained in software tools designed for agile project management or even in your organization’s bug-tracking application.

Because these lists include only work that can be completed in a short timeframe (typically, two or four weeks), sprint backlogs are often very simple.

An example of a sprint backlog template might look like this:

Sprint Backlog Template:

Backlog TaskASSIGNED TOTASK STATUSESTIMATE (DAYS)
User story #1
Task
Task
Task
User story #2
Task
Task
Task
Bug fix #1
Task
Task
Task

Conclusion: The Value of the Sprint Backlog

Developing a sprint backlog to kick off each sprint is a valuable product-team ritual for several reasons. It gives the team a chance at the beginning of each new sprint to discuss what’s most strategically important (and feasible) to work on next.

It gives the developers a fixed set of tasks and to-do items that they focus on for the upcoming sprint without worrying that their workload could be completely upended at any time.

And it gives the agile team a continuous opportunity to apply new learnings about what types of stories, fixes, and other development work can be completed within a typical sprint timeframe, so they are able better estimate timeframes and resource levels — and bring work in on time.