When coaching teams, here’s an approach I’ve found successful in helping the team maintain an effective backlog.
A backlog should have these qualities
- Easy to update by the product owner
- Should be available to everyone in the business
- Shows the likely outcomes to be delivered in the next sprint
- Conveys visions of the future with a tangible path to the present
- Reflects vagueness and options
- If a backlog item is too vague to describe in words, consider drawing a picture, as shown the photo below
I often encourage teams to visualise the backlog items inside a cone-shape in this manner:
- The neck of the cone shows the current sprint goal items
- The widest point of the cone shows the furthest goals which may be months or years from now.
- The centre of the cone shows the goals for the intervening time periods. This area can be divided into sprint, months, quarter and half-year intervals.
Reason for the cone-shape
- It reflects the cone of uncertainty, where the further out the team considers, the less certain they are of the future environment.
- The narrow neck of the cone reflects the fact the team can only sustainably deliver a small number of goals. Invariably there is more demand than the team can supply, so the team should gradually constrain the number of goals as the time nears the current sprint.
- The further into the future, the more the team can consider a wide number of options. This optionality allows the team to consider many possibilities and scenarios without having to commit earlier than necessary. However, as time draws nearer, and as the cone gets narrower, the team will need to reduce the number of options.
Additional information which supports the backlog
As shown in the photo above, there is some additional information which I use to support the backlog:
- Vision Statement: This is a short easy-to-understand statement which describes what the team intends to achieve. It’s written by the team, with their sponsor and stakeholders. The vision statement ensures alignment for the team, with those they serve and with those whom the team may rely upon.
- Strategies: These are the current set of approaches the team have reasonable confidence is that, if delivered successfully, will help fulfil the vision statement.
- KPIs: These Key Performance Indicators are a small selection of measures which indicate whether the team’s strategies and sprint goals are achieving the team’s vision.
- Epics start and end dates: Sprint goals which span more than one sprint are often called Epics. On the backlog, the likely start time of an epic is written on a blue post-it note; the likely end time is written on a pink post-it note.