Backlog grooming, or backlog refinement, is the process of refining outstanding user stories or backlog items, breaking big items into smaller tasks, and prioritizing those which need to be tackled first. Together, this helps shape the next sprint session’s objectives.
Together, this helps shape the next sprint session’s objectives. You may also hear of backlog grooming as backlog refinement.
When backlog grooming is working at its best, it usually takes the form of a regularly scheduled meeting attended by key team stakeholders. To keep the session focused, it’s generally not a good idea to bring too many people into backlog grooming meetings. But representatives of core teams — product managers, product owners, QA, and so on — should be present.
As well as backlog refinement, you may also have heard backlog grooming referred to as ‘story time’. But whatever you choose to call it, this process can be a powerful tool for keeping teams focused on the product roadmap’s overall strategic trajectory.
The central aim of backlog refinement is to review outstanding user stories in the backlog, ensure they are prioritized correctly, and that they are prepared for sprint planning.
Holding regular backlog grooming sessions like these not only keeps teams unified and on-target, but also ensures the backlog doesn’t get bogged down with irrelevant or outdated stories. Unlike a daily scrum, which focuses on immediate, daily tasks, backlog grooming is a more strategic exercise, concerned with the progress of the product roadmap as a whole.
Just like any large-scale team project, agile development teams can sometimes fall out of sync — especially when objectives and outcomes change frequently. By holding regular backlog refinement sessions, teams can more easily align their workloads and ensure that the overall project stays on track.
User stories within the backlog can be reviewed objectively and assessed from a cross-team perspective, often resulting in re-prioritization. The meeting is also a good opportunity for members of different teams to debate specific user stories, confirm responsibilities, or reshuffle urgencies where necessary.
In terms of practical outcomes, backlog grooming or backlog refinement meetings often result in:
A re-prioritization of user stories in the backlog
The splitting of large or nebulous user stories into smaller, more actionable ones
The addition (or removal) of user stories based on new information
The addressing of any questions from across different teams
The assurance that user stories are ready to be worked on in upcoming sprints
Because your backlog can quickly become a wish lists of nice-to-have features, it’s sometimes necessary to undergo somewhat of a reality check — and that’s exactly what backlog grooming can do. The clue is in the name: you are refining the features listed in your backlog, so that’s why we call it backlog refinement.
Unlike sprint planning meetings, which can get highly technical and tactical, backlog refinement is a matter of high-level process adjustment. One of its key advantages is that it enables a cross-team objective review of the backlog, holding stakeholders to account while also offering insight into how best to plan upcoming sprints.
This has a knock-on benefit, too: with a smaller, more refined backlog, sprint planning meetings will be faster and more efficient. By holding frequent, but short, backlog refinement sessions, agile development teams can ensure the overall project scope remains tight without impacting sprint planning.
For optimal results, and to minimize workflow disruption, backlog refinement meetings should last no more than an hour.
Because backlog refinement falls outside of the formal meeting structure suggested by the agile methodology, these sessions can take different forms from office to office.
The same goes for the required attendees. Who needs to be in the room will depend on the project, the organization, and, indeed, the strategic goal.
What’s more, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for who needs to lead backlog grooming sessions. But, whoever they are, they’ll take the role of a facilitator — not a commander! It may be their responsibility to keep the meeting on time and on topic, but their word is not final. Every stakeholder plays a role in backlog refinement decisions.
In the case of agile scrum teams, the scrum master will often be the facilitator; in other companies, a project manager may be the best person for the job.
Along with the facilitator, it’s a good idea to include:
The product manager or owner
Engineers or developers who own stories within the backlog
QA team representatives
That being said, there’s no fixed guest list when it comes to who should attend backlog grooming. It often comes down to who is available at any given moment.
That’s agility in action.
As with many things, preparation is key for backlog grooming.
All attendees should prepare in advance if you want your meeting to be worthwhile. But, before you can prepare, you need to know what to expect from backlog refinement sessions.
Of course, the main objective is to ensure that all user stories are geared towards the primary goal of the product roadmap. If not, there’s a good chance these will be pruned or re-prioritized.
So, to prepare, stakeholders should refamiliarize themselves with the overall project strategy, as well as review key metrics. With user stories under scrutiny, any preliminary results or promising measurements will be beneficial during a backlog grooming session — so if you have them, make sure you bring them along!
This scrutiny also means that stakeholders should be prepared to answer questions about why their stories should be prioritized in the backlog, how they align with the overarching goals, and so on.
Put simply, this is an exercise that creates regular opportunities for team members to review the product roadmap, ensure their user stories are aligned with it, and liaise with teams from across the business. For development teams using the agile methodology, a well-maintained backlog is the foundation of a successful project — and that should make backlog refinement a very exciting prospect indeed.