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Backlog Grooming: Continuous Prioritization

Teamwork Module 9 · Parabol Resources · 3 Minute Read

As a team works, it’s natural for new tasks to arise, or, to decide to skip particular tasks altogether. It’s impossible to know everything that will need doing ahead of time. However, for a team to achieve its mission it must actively choose what to do. Without an active process for continuously re-prioritizing the team’s backlog of work it’s too easy for the team to focus its efforts on the work added most recently rather than focusing on the work that will add the most value.

Backlog Grooming is the process our team uses to stay focused on the right work. By default, it’s done every 2 weeks:

Team's sprint cadence, with backlog grooming session highlighted

Backlog Grooming can be performed individually by an empowered Program Director or as a small 2-person meeting that includes an executive stakeholder. It’s a simple 2-step process:

  1. Review the Inbox: suggested tasks are prioritized to the Backlog
  2. Scrub the Backlog: the Backlog is re-prioritized, stale tasks are removed

When Backlog grooming is complete the most important and urgent work will be sorted to the top and ready to be prioritized in the next sprint. The team will always be focused on the most important work.

Reviewing the Inbox

Your first activity during Backlog Grooming is to take the cards that have accumulated to the inbox and prioritize them to the Backlog. In order for a card to be added to the Backlog it should meet the following criteria:

  • Clarity: anybody on the team should be able to read the card and understand what needs to be done
  • Sprint sized: the effort to complete the task should fit within a 2-week sprint

If either of these criteria are not met, the task card should be labeled by the Program Director with what needs to be improved and returned to the card’s author.

Backlog & sprint board diagram

If a card meets these criteria, it is prioritized to the Backlog. If the card is added to the top of the Backlog it means it’s the team’s top priority in the next sprint. The lower on the list, the longer it’ll be before the team might get to it. Because Backlog Grooming is often done with a team’s executive sponsor, the process of prioritization can (and should!) generate a lot of discussion. It’s helpful to use the team’s objectives to guide whether an activity is important or not. If it seems like the objectives are getting stale, then perhaps it’s time to add a new objective setting meeting to the Backlog…

Scrubbing the Backlog

After the Inbox is emptied of all the tasks that were ready to be prioritized, it’s time to give the Backlog one last look over. This is called “Scrubbing the Backlog.” Start at the top: the most important items should be in order. It should be easy to imagine the next Sprint of work.

Description of task backlog priority

As you descend the backlog the ordering will likely become less clear. A number of items might appear to be of similar, or equal, priority. It’ll be difficult to decide what should be higher in the list. This is fine. Your concern is only the priorities at the top of the list are clear and no high-priority items were mistakenly sorted toward bottom of the list.

Purging Tasks

You may find that some tasks are no longer applicable. Either their moment has passed or the objectives the group are pursuing have changed. It is ok to delete them and keep your Backlog tidy. In fact, some Program Directors go so far as to institute a “Backlog Aging” policy where any task older than a particular time (such as 2 quarters or a year) is subject to deletion. A common saying among agile teams is, “if it’s important, it’ll make its way back on the list.”

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