Product Backlog Refinement — Imperative yet Uncustomary
Looking closely into some of the well-oiled Agile teams, the one element that keeps their chaos leashed is — iterative and consistent Product Backlog Refinement.
When I am asked to coach teams, as a Scrum master and Agile Coach, for “Agile Improvements”, I usually notice common feebleness amongst teams- insufficient or negligent PBR (Product Backlog Refinement) aka Sprint Grooming.
So let’s break down PBR and look closely into why and how this one very informal event can help us cover the journey for teams from the state of confusion to achieve the Agile nirvana.
One more meeting?
Unlike other official ceremonies in Agile, the Product Backlog ceremony is technically not a part of the prescriptive process. So when we take certifications and read books, we will hear the term refined and prioritized backlog but we may not understand how to achieve it, where it fits into the cycle, and how important it is for the whole process. Hence, when we start new teams or take on one of the Agile roles, the focus is always on official ceremonies. In other words, PBR is a side dish that you don’t focus on until your main course is under control. In Agile though, this side dish is indomitable.
First and foremost, we need to accept that this event is not “extra work”, it makes work happen. PBR needs to be part of the process and to do so, there needs to be cadence just like any other ceremony.
This is the magic wand for organizing the chaos sprint after sprint, and yes it can be done!
The anatomy of refinement -
If you are thinking too hard or unclear about the objective of the refinement process, start simple and small. Think of what to take into the process as input and set the stage on what you are trying to achieve from this process and then let your team define this process-
- Product backlog, in any format. It could be ideas, features, epics. I like to call it ”Product owner’s Wish List”.
- The team getting together on a regular cadence and working on this backlog.
- The team might need additional people like internal and external stakeholders, customers or others who can help them understand the requirements.
Everything in between -
Once you have the right input and audience, watch the magic happen. The team will collaborate to -
- Understand the work for upcoming sprints and help write/update the user stories.
- Look for areas for any further research/refinement that can help the team understand and estimate the work.
- Discuss dependencies, if any.
- Breakdown and estimate the work.
The Refined and prioritized backlog — This is one artifact that solves countless issues that could topple your Agile wagon. A well refined backlog:
- Helps the team understand the path ahead and give them a clear understanding of the backlog items.
- Helps the team provide clear estimates.
- Makes sprint planning much easier for the team and Scrum Master.
- Supports Product Owners and stakeholders in getting the product ready for market efficiently.
- Helps create a collaborative environment and a shared understanding of the project .
- Serves as a team bonding exercise where everyone can speak up their mind and work collaboratively to understand the what’s and whys of the backlog items.
Dancing to your own tunes -
One must wonder what part does “cadence” play in this semantics. Well, like other ceremonies, if PBR is done on a cadence, it can provide best results. The cadence adds discipline, and helps create engagement, and will help produce magical impact.
- Cadence will ensure there is always time for refinement.
- Doing PBR consistently will help the team stay on the same page and avoid any confusions
- It will help the team inform of any changes in priority and plan for those ahead of time.
- It will save the team from the nightmare of asking stakeholders to make time for them on short notices.
- More importantly it helps identify the sequencing of work and dependencies so the team can plan for it intelligently.
Some words of wisdom from the chief gratuitous-
Lastly, I want to leave you with some helping tips and tricks that have showed me and my teams good refinement path -
Scrum Masters -
- Please ensure there is 5–10% of velocity committed towards refinement every sprint. This will help the team to not hunt for time and achieve the results above from continuous refinement.
- Please ensure there is a regular cadence of refinement on the team calendar. You might not be responsible for scheduling these sessions but you are accountable to ensure this is happening and is productive.
- I would suggest to all Scrum Masters to not make it optional for themselves. This one event does more heavy lifting than other events defined and described in golden ink.
- Make time for this event. Having a BA without PO or proxy PO will cause more confusion and chaos and might make the team question the importance of the process.
- Come prepared with the priority and understand the customer value of the work being asked. Do your research well or bring a colleague along who can help you.
- Just like any other ceremony put your skin in this game, own it and make time for it.
- Remember your Agile fundamentals, they apply to this event too.
- Don’t rush into estimation, as for what you need before you estimate.
- Don’t confuse between “What” and “How”.
- Call out dependencies as early as you see them, understand them and plan them.
- Pick your own cadence, don’t let other teams or people define it for you. Don’t be afraid to try a few combinations, some teams like short meetings multiple times a week and others 2 long days before planning. There is no right or wrong.
PBR is the pulse to the Agile teams; it’s the one secret ingredient that can help our teams make the crossover from wild chaos to systematic chaos. We have to make this worthwhile and make it count.
Have you found your magic potion for refinement yet?