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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Importance of the Product Backlog

As we have reviewed in one of our prior articles, the Product Backlog is the list of incremental product features or functionality that the product owner expects on the product. This is the list the Scrum Team would refer to at the beginning of each sprint and choose the top priority features to enhance the product. So far, so good.

One of the big mistakes organizations that are new to adopting Scrum do is to underestimate the importance of the product backlog. The purpose of this article is to help you understand why the Product Backlog is crucial to any scrum projects success.

To Understand why Product Backlog is Important – Imagine this Scenario in the Sprint Planning for the 1st Sprint

The entire team is assembled in the meeting room including the scrum master and the product owner. This is the first sprint and everyone is excited to get started on the next batch of product enhancements. However, there are no user stories ready nor are the details ready. What do you think would happen?

The product owner will try to visualize and document the product enhancements as part of a user story and then the team will start analysing the story so that they can estimate it and get started on the work. The first few days of the sprint is going to be wasted before the team has at least one or two user stories that are in “Ready” state for development. Of course, if the team is big, just one or two stories may not be enough to fully utilize the team and hence we are probably going to waste a few days of every team members time until we have sufficient user stories for everyone.

Not to mention the cascading effect this is going to have on subsequent sprints as well because in this Sprint the product owner would be struggling to supply enough stories to keep the team occupied and by the time there are enough stories, Sprint 1 is over and we would’ve reached Iteration Planning day for Sprint 2 and are again back to the same state where the backlog of stories or requirements is not ready.

Do I need to explain more about why the Product Backlog is Important?

Real Life Trivia:   The example above is not fictional and I have seen that happen in many projects where the product owner or the team did not spend time preparing for Sprint 1 and majority of sprint 1 was spent getting the backlog ready and the product output of Sprint 1 was barely anything worthwhile. 

Pre-Sprint Readiness Check of the Sprint Backlog

Experienced Scrum Masters do not wait until Day One of the first sprint to find out whether the product owner has gotten started on the product backlog. They usually identify a few key members of the team and have them get started on discussions with the Product Owner on the potential product enhancements at least a few days (or even weeks) prior to Sprint one. This way, the preliminary backlog of user stories or features is ready before Sprint 1 starts and there is no wasted effort.

An argument here can be made that no work should begin before the start of the Sprint and if we have people working on user stories prior to sprint 1, aren’t we deviating from what Scrum recommends?

Yes, this argument is quite valid but Scrum does not actually recommend that. One of the assumptions in Scrum is that a “Well Defined” product backlog is ready when we arrive in the iteration planning meeting. Without this product backlog the team cannot build anything product in that sprint and hence it is assumed that some work would’ve gone into getting the product backlog ready before the Sprint planning. Get the picture?

In one of our earlier articles on Scrum Meetings, we had a meeting called the “Backlog Refinement” meeting where the product owner and a few members of the team get together to review the product backlog to understand the complexity & relative priority of the important items so that the next iterations planning meeting can be fruitful. It’s the same concept here and we have some members of the team working on the product backlog so that right from Sprint 1, the team is able to deliver incremental product upgrades.

Real Life Trivia: Some Scrum Teams even have a Sprint 0 where only a few members of the team and the product owner get started and their goal is to prepare the initial product backlog before we start Sprint 1. What we name this preparatory period is entirely up to us but the idea here is to make sure there are enough backlog items for the team to be productive from the start.

Have you faced such situations in your scrum projects or have any inputs for fellow scrum masters? Do sound off on the comments.

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