A clear, well-ordered backlog leads to more focus, less time in refinement, and delivering the most important items first. In this Lightning Cast, you’ll find out how to order your backlog.
A Lightning Cast is a shorter form episode modeled after lightning talks. You’ll get valuable content in 8 minutes or less.
WHY ORDERING YOUR BACKLOG IS IMPORTANT
There are many reasons why having a healthy, ordered product backlog is important to teams.
- An ordered backlog gives the team clarity as to what the next most important thing to do is. This brings focus to the team and helps them to limit work in progress (WIP), which in turn helps accelerate delivery.
- By focusing on the most important items, if the team is unable to finish everything that they forecast they’ll be able to complete, they’ll complete the most important work first and any incomplete work will be less important.
- Ordering the backlog is helpful in helping you identify which backlog items the team needs to refine to a ready state. Items at the top of the backlog should be in a ready start while items further down can have decreasing levels of clarity. Ordering the backlog helps keep refinement meetings short and focused.
WHEN TO ORDER THE BACKLOG
Ordering the backlog is not a one-time event. The team must review priorities regularly and update the backlog order. The backlog should be re-ordered whenever we learn new information. This includes:
- For Scrum teams, after the Sprint Review / Demo when you receive stakeholder feedback
- When the team identifies dependencies between backlog items
- As items are added or removed from the backlog
- As time changes; priorities may change based on urgency and cost of delay
As organizational priorities change, the order of items in the backlog may change. This does not imply that one backlog item is more important than another item; it simply means that one item needs to be completed sooner than another item to meet program or organizational priorities.
It’s important to note that the backlog is not a To Do list. The intention is not to complete all the backlog items in order. Teams must continually seek feedback, learn, and adapt their approach and priorities, which the backlog should change frequently.
Once a team commits to an iteration (Sprint) plan, the priority of the committed backlog items should not change.
APPROACHES TO ORDERING YOUR BACKLOG
There are several ways to order the product backlog.
MoSCoW Prioritization: Gain initial clarity by considering how each backlog item contributes to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and then separate backlog items into one of four categories:
- Must Have
- Should Have
- Could Have
- Won’t Have (at this time, but would like in the future)
Value Based Prioritization: Consider the impact each backlog item will have on customers and the outcomes it will produce. Items that contribute more value or create better outcomes should be done first. When ordering by value, you should also consider:
- dependencies between backlog items
- size and cost of delay (prioritize smaller items with a higher cost of delay first)
- risk (you may elect to attempt high risk items earlier so you can adapt if needed)
- learning (if there is uncertainty, you may prioritize a few backlog items that allow for learning opportunities)
Value-Complexity Matrix: When ordering your backlog, it’s helpful to consider both customer/business value as well as the effort and complexity needed to deliver that value. A rapid, visual way of ordering your stories, features, or initiatives is with a Value-Complexity Matrix.
A Value-Complexity Matrix allows you to plot backlog items across two dimensions – business value and complexity/effort. You should add each backlog item to the matrix relative to others (e.g., items higher in value are farther right and items that are more complex or require more effort are plotted higher on the matrix).
The example below shows a Value Complexity Matrix. You can use this tool with the entire team to gain a shared understanding or as an initial step by the Product Owner to understand high level priorities and what should/should not be considered.
Backlog items that are high value and low complexity should be done first. These are quick wins that add a lot of value. Items high in value and moderate complexity should be done next. Low value, low complexity items can be considered next.
For backlog items that are low in value and moderate complexity or high value and high complexity, you should carefully consider if they are worth doing or if there’s a simpler implementation that can bring value.
Backlog items that are low value and high complexity should not be done unless absolutely required (e.g., regulatory). If that’s the case, explore how to simplify or reduce the effort needed.
ORDERING BUSINESS VS. TECHNICAL PRODUCT BACKLOG ITEMS
As you continue implementing features, the system must scale and code needs to be refactored to ensure a stable platform. Additionally, architectural changes may be needed to enable future features and capabilities.
Teams will need to balance delivery of business intent with the need to maintain code and build the architectural runway to enable future enhancements. To address the need for technical changes, there are a few approaches you can take.
- Dedicate a certain percentage of team time to resolving technical debt
- Look for ways to incorporate technical debt or advancement work into feature builds
- Add enabler features and technical stories to your backlog which account for the development of architecture and prioritize those backlog items in addition to business intent.
- Dedicate a percentage of time or stories to ensure both technical and business backlog items can be delivered (e.g., 70% business intent, 30% technical intent)
- Plot technical backlog items along with business items on the Value-Complexity Matrix while considering the value of technical items as enabling future opportunities or reducing risk.
When ordering your backlog, it’s important that the team has a shared understanding about the value (the ‘why’) of items so that there’s alignment and focus. Start by eliminating that which you shouldn’t do at all and then order remaining backlog items by considering value, effort, dependencies, risk, and cost of delay.
A clear, well-ordered backlog leads to more focus, less time in refinement, and delivering the most important items first.
Listen to this lightning cast for help ordering your backlog.
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