Agile Product Backlog Refinement (Grooming)

Feature image by Photo by Crystalline Radical.

 

In my last post, Agile Product Backlog Grooming Reduces Risk, I talked about using Product Backlog Grooming sessions as a project risk mitigation tool. In this post, we’ll further explore the details of backlog grooming with some tips to increase the value of grooming. These tips are for the Product Manager, Product Owner, and Development team to help make the grooming experience valuable and easy.

Development and Product teams begin the process of collaboration before the Product Manager has pitched the new/modified product idea to the business or before anything is actually in the product backlog. At this stage, most if not all information is based on previous experiences and assumptions. However, depending on your business structure, the Product Manager will probably validate most Problem & Solution assumptions prior to presenting the project to the business. The Development person here is the product architect or designated representative of the team(s) familiar with the product.

  1. Product Manager gets an idea (from any source) on how to achieve business goals with his or her product
  2. Product Owner and Development discuss feasibility of the idea, reworking the idea until thought feasible, based on the limited knowledge at hand.
  3. Product Manager/Owner develops business rational including the risks based on limited knowledge.
  4. Product Owner and Development collaborate to create the Business Canvas. You might consider using Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas or Roman Pichler’s Product Canvas and Vision Board.
  5. Product Owner and Development collaborate to validate the Customer Problem and Solutions with customers through interviews and user testing. (Remove any Canvas entries that failed validation. Might need to go back to step 1.)
  6. Product Owner and Development provide an initial estimate. We’re looking for the ballpark, order of magnitude type estimate here e.g., 6 weeks or 6 months?
  7. Present Business rational and Canvas to business stakeholders for approval and funding.

Establishing preliminary understanding

The Product Manager’s product feature idea is now on the product roadmap (or equivalent). Depending on your business’s average lead time for work all the following steps could occur over the course of months or in rapid succession. My own experiences had roadmap items identified up to a year before the project, not very timely for customers but there are other factors at play including priorities, competition, and ‘hunches’ from the executive team.

These few steps are for illustration purposes and may not be what your team wants or even needs so feel free to modify for your specific needs. These steps will probably be done once. However, depending on the timing, may need to be revisited if the Product Owner and Development architect determine the data gathered has gone stale.

  1. Create one epic in Jira for one idea or feature. Most people use a tool rather than a big wall these days but if you have the wall space and an enthusiastic Scrum Master, by all means use a wall to define the high level projects.
  2. Development architects do initial technical scoping and high level design or impact mapping on current architecture. Unless you’re contemplating a new product, this will be based on the product’s current technical foundations and platforms.
  3. Full development team discusses the problem and possible solutions (non-technical). This is with a larger group of people using validated feedback from customers about how they envisioned their problem being removed from the user perspective. This serves as the baseline for UX designs. The discussion stays at the ‘what’ level but the full team might have something to say about feasibility and sizing.
  4. Full team provides updated estimates for Product Owner.
  5. Create the paper or wireframe UX designs & validate with customers.
  6. Development team (developers, UXD, and testers) along with Product Owner to define or confirm their collective understanding of what a ‘sprint ready user story’ is i.e. they define the Definition of Ready.
  7. Full team provides an updated estimate for the Product Owner.

The value to the business achieved during the above steps is to develop a good high-level understanding of all the work necessary for the initial epic user story. The team does a couple of estimates so the Product Owner can determine if the feature is still economically feasible. You’ll note customer involvement, looking at display mockups. The ideal situation is the customer finds that only a portion of the proposed work is necessary. The Product Owner and Development team keep focus on satisfying the customer in order to achieve a business goal.

On-going backlog grooming

This section details the steps for mainstream backlog grooming that gets repeated until a story is actually in a sprint. Most of these steps will be familiar. The full development team is ideally one Agile Scrum team but if there are several teams working a product, the grooming session should include those teams likely to work the stories. With a large number of teams (> 3), the LeSS framework, by Craig Larman & Bas Vodde,  suggests doing the grooming sessions in stages:

  • Overall Product Backlog Refinement (shared among all teams)
  • Team-level Product Backlog Refinement
  • Multi-team Product Backlog Refinement

 

  1. Full development team, using UX and architectural designs, begins breakdown of Epics into smaller stories using the Definition of Ready (DoR) guide the team established in the previous section.
  2. Product Owner and Development team continue to prioritize stories based on customer/business value but taking into account any implementation concerns or risks.
  3. Each user story is reviewed starting with those at the top of the backlog. Every user story is accompanied by notes, acceptance criteria, and estimates using the DOR as guide. If the story can be associated with a step in the ‘customer journey’, that would be a great help for stakeholders toward understanding the work.
  4. Product Owner and Development team review & discuss each story including those that are marked ‘sprint ready’. For stories not ‘sprint ready’, discussions on how the story could be implemented, could be tested, the customer value, and discuss compromises as necessary. ‘Sprint ready’ stories are checked that nothing has change that could affect the team’s understanding of the story or its priority.
  5. Again prioritize stories based on costs and customer / business value
  6. Check that all Epics and UX designs are covered with stories and have been prioritized.
  7. Make stories sprint ready and keep anyone who’s interested informed. My experience is most managers will not be looking through tools on a daily basis to determine progress. But being transparent is critical and using a big wall in a conspicuous location will provide the necessary details to management. If you have a ‘story wall’, you can use colored stickers to indicate status of stories i.e. sprint ready.
  8. The last step of every grooming session will be to again review the estimates and priority of the stories. Always check  the most valuable work is top-most on the product backlog.

The desired outcome of these sessions is:

  1. Big stories are split
  2. Stories are estimated
  3. Stories are well understood by the team(s) likely to implement them
  4. Stories are made ‘sprint ready’ based on the team’s Definition of Ready

Summary

In my experience, the amount of time needed between roadmap item to having a couple sprints worth of ‘sprint ready user stories’ is about 4 weeks calendar time, assuming development teams are busy doing sprint work as their primary activity. This provides time for any proto-typing, UX design, additional customer/user interviews, and getting input on marketing, sales, support, or other business concerns that could affect implementation choices. This could take a few days if done by an experienced project team in a full-time workshop.