One of the most overwhelming things in a product manager’s life is taking care of the backlog. It often feels like it’s a blackhole of never ending things that will never even get looked at. “Just add it to the backlog” almost always feels like the easiest way to avoid a conversation at times, doesn’t it?
The good news is: there’s a way out of this!
You don’t have to let your backlog control you, there is a way to tame the beast.
In this post, I’d like to explore some of the ways to do that to regain some sanity into your lives. Let’s go!
The best way to handle your backlog is not to treat it like a list of things to do, but a list of opportunities you might be able to undertake.
Using a product problem outline can help structure thoughts for your entire team.
Always use data and feedback to back up your decisions about what to do and what not to do.
It is not down to you to solve all problems, but it is up to you to prioritize which ones to solve.
Select the right product tool to help you!
One thing I often see is that the product backlog is treated like a list of things to do. It is not.
Your product backlog is a list of potential opportunities you can undertake.
Having others submit ideas to your backlog is a good thing! It means your team is willing to send you potential ideas and opportunities for you to explore and you’re not sitting in a silo disconnected from everyone. That said, it doesn’t mean you actually have to work on every single thing that comes your way.
This is where prioritization and linking back to outcomes and objectives works in your favor.
To narrow down the scope of things you are looking at, make sure that you’re following some organization and prioritization rules:
Tag items in your backlog so they’re easily findable by theme (eg, tag product areas)
Group similar items into initiatives or projects, so that you understand how these link to a larger piece of work.
When prioritizing which initiative to take on next, make sure you pick the ones that give you the greatest impact against your desired outcome or goal.
This means that you are immediately able to remove those items that don’t currently meet your team’s focus, and solely work on those that will target your current objectives. Also know that it’s ok to archive items that have crossed a threshold (for example, ideas that are over a year or two old.) If they are important, they will resurface and you can reassess them at a later time.
You should never just be working on a one-off project without understand what you are doing and why, which takes us to our next point.
A really good way of understanding scope of an opportunity is to outline business requirements with a product problem outline.
This outline can help you create a summary of the following:
What problem you are trying to solve
Why it should be solved
What the current hypothesis is
What value it brings to customers
What value it brings to the business
How you will measure success
Not only will this help you understand and triage items better, but it will also help you communicate some of the decision-making that goes on in the team. In addition, it’ll help your entire team (not just the product team,) develop product-thinking instead of solution-thinking. That is, thinking about the problem first while making room to explore various potential solutions.
As items get nurtured, reviewed and accepted, your entire team is able to gain visibility over what it takes for the product team to work on new ideas, creating another positive effect. They will be more inclined to use the product problem outline more often and provide you with as much information upfront, making your backlog a bit less solution oriented, making it feel like it’s less of a to-do list.
When it comes to making decisions, data and feedback are your friends.
Don’t just work on something to work on something, make sure that you are ready to back up the reasoning with some additional information, both in the form of qualitative and quantitative data.
Likewise, if you’re stuck in a HiPPo-related situation, you can use both to make a case for not working on something. If there is potential risk, or if there’s a case for cost analysis and negotiation of projects, data is a great ally.
The most dangerous thing your product team can do is go off to work on something that has no clear problem to solve, brings no value to the customer, and has no success measurements behind it. Then you’re really just treating your backlog as a list of things to do.
I recently saw a Reddit thread where someone said: “your job as a PM is NOT to figure out problems nor to prioritize things. Your job is to grow the business, period. Moving fast can be more important than moving straight.”
Well…. Not really.
Product managers are not responsible for solving all the problems, but they are responsible for understanding which problems could be solved which will in turn give you the biggest return against your desired outcome.
You have an entire group of people around you - from support to marketing to development - to help you come up with different ways of solving a problem. It is not solely down to you.
As to the second part of the quote, I'd like to propose the following: If you’re moving forward without direction, are you really moving forward?
Moving forward without focus (and treating your backlog like a list of things to do) is the complete opposite of what you should be doing. Product managers are not project managers. You don’t prioritize everything that comes your way., but you are continuously prioritizing on multiple levels.
As PMs we need direction and intention. As the famous quote goes, sometimes you need to slow down in order to speed up. Slowing down means thoughtfully looking at all opportunities, understanding which ones will have the greatest impact, and backing up that decision with data and feedback to create wonderful experiences for our customers.
Selecting the right product tool can really be a game changer. I’m of course a proponent of having a good process first and a tool later, but having the right tool can help you implement that process accordingly.
And not only that, but it can certainly help build transparency, alignment, and ensure that your teams aren’t acting in silos throughout.
Be sure to check out airfocus!
21 Sep 2023Your Guide to Backlog: Product vs. Sprint Backlog