Product Backlog: How to Create and Manage It Effectively

Ever noticed how different the results of carefully planned business processes are from those where a hands-off approach is taken? What is the foundation of a successful project? There are several factors underlying a well-managed and well-thought-out project: consistent approach, thorough task prioritizing, and team backlog. Where the IT industry is concerned, product backlog building can be the key to efficient product development processes. So, what is product backlog and how can you successfully utilize it to facilitate product development?

This article will talk about product backlog in Agile development, the most widely used approach to IT project development:

 

What Is a Product Backlog?

The simplest product backlog definition is a continuously improved, prioritized list of required product deliverables. It provides context on what should be done and the order in which it should be built. Product backlog items (PBIs) always reflect the needs of customers or stakeholders, so the common way to incorporate users’ needs into PBIs is to write them in the form of a user story. However, user stories aren’t the only type of PBIs – product backlogs can also include such items as use cases, epics, bugs or timeboxed research tasks.

The simplest backlog example looks like a table where the tasks to be done are visualized and placed in descending order of priority.

You definitely have heard such terms as Scrum backlog, Agile backlog or Jira backlog. What do they mean and how can you choose the one that will fit your business process best?

Agile and Scrum – making software development flexible and fast

First of all, let’s take a closer look at the very process of project development. Agile philosophy implies flexible approaches to software development allowing the regular release of products and updates. Scrum is one of these approaches, which is used when you work with a product valuable both for users and product owners. It is necessary to know where you have to move on your way to the release of the product and to know whether you need to adjust your efforts. The Scrum approach allows releasing new versions more often and getting feedback faster to adjust the product and improve the working process.

A Scrum development team, as a rule, consists of:

  • team members (developers)
  • product owner, who understands the market and user, formulates tasks clear for business and users, realizes how the product value should develop, and sets the tasks to evolve the product
  • Scrum master, who monitors the development process and teamwork, motivates people and addresses obstacles

The Scrum teamwork process is divided into so-called sprints – usually a clearly defined amount of time, from one to four weeks. During this period the team has to develop products or product features that can be tested by users to get their feedback. The sprint steps include planning, work, result presentation and analysis. This analysis stage allows the team to check the results, bring possible mistakes to light and define the ways to improve their work.

The team is guided with a list of the product owner’s ideas on how to make users happy – a scrum product backlog, where the ideas are sorted by their importance and value. It shows the big picture – all the things that must be done to complete the whole project. Effective product backlog breaks the whole list of backlog items (PBIs) into a series of steps to be taken by the development team. Backlog items should be assigned a certain duration so the team knows when to start and when to complete a certain task.

At that project backlog cannot be set in stone. Product backlog management, like any other aspect of project management implies flexibility. It must be adjustable to the work of the development team. A successful Scrum backlog example shrinks when tasks are completed and removed from the product backlog item list, and, in case the project grows and expands, new PBIs are added.

 

What is Scrum sprint backlog?

As we mentioned earlier, a product backlog is a general picture of the project, its roadmap defining the long-term view of the software product the team is building. Thus, the difference between product backlog and sprint backlog can be explained in just a few words. Sprint backlog is derived from product backlog, but it contains only the items that can be completed during a certain sprint. Sprint backlog in Agile depends on the complexity of the project, but unlike the product backlog it is not very flexible – it can be changed only once, during the sprint planning meeting. Once agreed it cannot be changed – any item that is not completed during the set sprint is added back to the product log to be addressed during the next sprint.

 

 

The Atlassian experts define the purpose of sprint planning as “to define what can be delivered in the sprint and how that work will be achieved”. To set up the sprint the team has to know:

  • What they are going to do – the product owner presents the objective of the sprint and describes PBIs the Scrum team can realize to reach the goal, and the team decides what they can do during the coming sprint to achieve the goal set by the product owner.
  • How they are going to work – the team creates the plan for the coming sprint, negotiating with the product owner based on such terms as value and effort.
  • Which PBIs the agile team can use to plan the current sprint, taking into account the previous sprints and the work done.
  • How the team sees the sprint goal and how they will start working towards that goal.

 

 

Backlog software

When planning a sprint a development team usually uses backlog management tools. For example, Jira Software allows creating sprint plans, viewing sprints on a board and assigning issues to sprints. Using Jira for sprint planning allows planning, tracking, and managing all agile software development projects from a single tool. A well-tuned Jira sprint board makes the planning process much more convenient and consistent.

Another agile project management tool designed to help visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize efficiency (or flow) is the Jira kanban board. Kanban boards are based on the continuous delivery of work and allow the continuous monitoring of the flow of work, ensuring the tasks in the backlog are always being addressed. These boards use cards, columns, and continuous improvement to help technology and service teams commit to the right amount of work, and get it done.

 

Product backlog vs sprint backlog – what you should keep in mind

Areas of responsibility: the product owner is responsible for the product backlog, while the development team is responsible for the sprint backlog planning.

Difference in the backlog time: the product backlog is created at the very first sprint planning session, while the sprint backlog should be created by the team at each new sprint planning session. Thus, the product backlog lives throughout the entire development of the product, while the sprint backlog lives for 1-4 weeks (length of the sprint).

The effectiveness of the sprint backlog, as well as the effectiveness of the product backlog, depends on the ability of the team to see the whole project – they must know the project inside and out and be able to break each of the tasks necessary for project development into a series of steps that can then be assigned to the team. In simple words, your team must know what they have to do, when they have to do it and in what order they have to do the tasks to create a valuable product.

Product backlog prioritization

Prioritization is one of the key factors of project success.

All items are prioritized according to their business value. Due to the fact that business priorities might change, requirements might be added or removed. Items are compared in order to determine their relative priority and the most important are shown at the top of the list so the team always knows what to work on next.

It is important to make sure it doesn’t become an open-ended list of every random thought anyone has about your product. Product backlog needs to be structured, organized, and arranged to favor the most strategically important things for your team to work on.

There are several backlog prioritization techniques widely used in the IT industry:

MoSCoW prioritization. The acronym, MoSCoW, stands for 4 different categories of initiatives: must-haves (i.e. non-negotiable product needs that are mandatory for the team), should-haves (important initiatives that are not vital but add significant values), could-haves (initiatives that are nice to have but have a small impact if left out), and will not have at this time (initiatives that are not a priority for this specific time frame).

  • Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). This prioritization model is used to sequence jobs (e.g., Features, Capabilities, and Epics) to produce maximum economic benefit. The model allows continuously updating backlog priorities based on user and business value, time factors, risk, opportunity enablement, and effort.
  • Kano Model. This model helps us determine customers’ (and prospects’) satisfaction with product features, i.e. using it you can prioritize the tasks in terms of user satisfaction and functionality.
  • Eisenhower Matrix, or Urgent Important Matrix. This one is usually used for daily tasks of the team. It helps you to rapidly identify the activities that you should focus on, along with the ones you should ignore.

More details about using these techniques and balancing the priorities can be found in our handbook.

In all cases your product backlog needs to remain as lean and realistic as possible. It should contain the things on deck for your next sprint, and the second-level priority items you’ll get to within the next few months. So let us define the steps necessary to make an effective product backlog.

How to build a product backlog?

As we already know, the backlog is composed of the backlog items. If you build a backlog of your product from scratch - the easiest thing would be to use “Functional Decomposition”.

The Functional Decomposition method allows defining direct links between business needs with development tasks, i.e. it allows constant focusing on a business perspective of the objective to be achieved by the project.

Investopedia‘s definition of “functional decomposition” is as follows: “A method of business analysis that dissects a complex business process to show its individual elements. Functional decomposition facilitates the understanding and management of large and/or complex processes and can be used to help solve problems”. It helps to dissect a complex process to show its individual elements and to see the overall function or project and all of the necessary sub-tasks to complete the project.

What does it mean in practical terms? When finding the links between your business perspective and the objectives of the project, follow a comprehensive procedure of product backlog planning:

1. Start with the highest level business objectives that the problem is designed to accomplish.

2. Break high-level objectives into other objectives that may be necessary to achieve.

3. Then, break down those objectives into the higher-level functionality (which are called "Epics") that are needed to reach that objective.

4. Break down that higher-level functionality (Epics) into lower-level functionality (User Stories) that are needed to accomplish that epic.

5. Inspect the obtained diagram: If there are functions that have been omitted, add them to the diagram.

6. Prioritize all of the items in the product backlog to have a clear picture of the work sequencing. Use our Prioritization Guide (link to the Handbook) to make the prioritization process easier.

 

Conclusion

Effective product backlog provides an unmatched advantage for product development, as well as a professional development team. The Archer Software team is always here to help you – we are ready to discuss any of your business ideas, consult with you on the applicable technologies and methods, and provide you with the best solution to address your business needs.