How to use Product Backlogs to Improve your Team’s Productivity

In its literal meaning, backlog means “an accumulation of something, especially uncompleted work or matters that you need to deal with”.

In the management world, you may find another definition that is the most used by anyone who works with projects: several items and lists of things to do.

But this term came from the IT environment and the product backlog became overwhelmingly getting some sort of importance due to the strategic planning of any company.

In this article, you will find out what is a Product Backlog and how essential it is to help your team’s productivity.

What is Backlog?

A backlog is nothing but a list of tasks (or backlog) needed to support a superior strategic plan. However, this concept gained its first purpose for software development, where it is a repository of requirements companies develop and deliver.

This concept later surfaced to manufacturing industries in a product development context as a prioritized list of items that the project team agreed to work on.

Typical items on a product backlog (or backlog) include user stories, changes to existing functionality, and bug fixes. The term “backlog” also has many uses in other areas such as accounting and finance.

It can, for example, refer to a company’s sales orders that are waiting to be filled, or to a pile of financial documents, such as loan applications.

The product-specific backlog consists of an ordered list of all items (or requirements) that need to be in the product. It is also common to find the term “Maintenance Backlog”. However, this subject will be covered in more detail in the following topics in this article.

The word backlog may be accompanied by some terms from the agile methodology, such as backlog scrum, backlog aging, or agile backlog.

Backlog Basics

The term backlog is used to indicate the existing workload that exceeds the production capacity of a company or department, often used in construction or manufacturing.

The presence of a backlog can have positive or negative implications. For example, an increase in backlogs of products may indicate an increase in sales.

On the other hand, companies often want to avoid backlogs as this can suggest increasing inefficiency in the production process.

Likewise, a drop in order books can be an important sign of lagging demand, but it can also mean an improvement in production efficiency. Of course, unexpected delays can compromise forecasts and production schedules.

Why is Backlog important?

Product managers (PM) must focus on high-level goals to solve problems in their target market. This means that PMs spend much of their time on strategic initiatives such as market research, studying usage data for their existing products, and talking to stakeholders such as sales teams and customers.

PMs convert what they learn into a product roadmap, which is a high-level strategic plan for the product.

However, for PMs to successfully bring products to market, they translate their overall plans and objectives into task-level detail. That’s where the backlog comes in. It provides a prioritized list of actionable items for the team to work on.

With a to-do list, product managers know that their team always has a set of next tasks, which will keep product development moving forward.

What is Product Backlog?

The backlog is associated with the development of a product. So it’s extremely common for you to find the term product backlog, rather than the word alone in a context.

The product backlog can be represented in a physical format using index cards or sticky notes, or it can be represented in electronic format as a text file, spreadsheet, or one of the many existing product backlog management tools.

Electronic boards are the best choice for a team that has remote members or collects a large amount of supplemental information about backlog items.

Physical boards offer the advantage of making the product backlog continuously visible and concrete during discussions around the product backlog.

What is Sprint Backlog?

The Sprint Backlog is a set of product backlog items selected for the current step, as well as plans to provide product increments to achieve the goals of this step.

The Sprint Backlog is the development team’s expectation of which functions will be included in the next increment and what work will be required to provide those functions.

The development team will modify the Sprint Backlog throughout the Sprint. Gradually the product backlog is being polished or improved. Do you see how much this concept relates to agile frameworks?

What is a Maintenance Backlog?

Similar to a maintenance checklist, a maintenance backlog is a list of tasks that are ready to be performed to repair or maintain equipment.

These tasks are mandatory because they help prevent security issues, breakages, failures, or damage.

For example, a company vehicle that needs an oil change would be in the maintenance portfolio. Think of it as an endless to-do list. These tasks remain on the list until they are completed.

The most obvious reason to have a maintenance backlog is to know what tasks you need to do at all times so that you don’t lose anything. In addition to controlling the workload, it is also essential for resource planning and scheduling.

How does Backlog work and who should administer it?

The agile team or team together with the Product Owner are generally responsible for the backlog of products, so they are responsible for writing and prioritizing, and managing the initial items.

Teams use these items for the first iteration. Thus, they form the first sprint backlog, made up of the stories that are part of this first iteration.

Don’t confuse Product Backlog with Sprint backlog

It is important to understand that product backlog is different from sprint backlog. The team does the product backlog only once and  updates it throughout the project, while they create the sprint backlog every iteration.

As the product backlog has weekly reviews, the sprint backlog receives daily updates.

How to improve the Backlog (Backlog Grooming)?

While some people treat product backlog refinement as one of the Scrum events, technically it isn’t.

However, refining the product backlog usually takes place with a regular meeting.

Newer teams should start with a regular meeting. Planning two 90-minute meetings a week is a good strategy.

You can adjust the meeting duration or number of meetings, or simply cancel a planned meeting if you feel it is sufficient.

Teams can struggle and end up learning this through trial and error, but I find it more effective to organize them with a few meetings each sprint to learn continuous improvement or backlog preparation.

More experienced teams may find it more effective to refine backlog items during sprint planning. Others may treat refinement as a continuous flow and leave list refinement until mid-sprint when they are ready to develop the list item. This might work better for the team.

How to create a product backlog?

It’s common to present product backlogs in the form of a spreadsheet, but there’s a big problem with that: Spreadsheets do not work fine when they have their rows constantly moved. Plus, you’ll find yourself dealing with formatting issues and the ensuing migraine.

Whatever solution you use, follow these steps to start your scrum product backlog.

1. Add ideas to the backlog

Stakeholders will typically be approaching you with ideas for product improvements

2. Get clarification

Once a stakeholder approaches you with a product addition or fix, make sure you understand the reason behind the addition or fix; the amount of value it contributes to the product as a whole, and the specifications of the item.

3. Prioritize

The backlog should clearly define high-priority items at the time, and vague items that are not a priority at the bottom. If an item has no value, it should not be in the backlog.

4. Update the backlog regularly

The backlog is a living document; make sure you’re constantly prioritizing, refining, and keeping the backlog up to date.

You may have hundreds of items in your backlog as suggestions for product improvements come.

Some of these items are possible to discard, but many of them will begin making their way up the backlog for further refinement and, ultimately, development.

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