What is Backlog Refinement?
Many Agile teams have conversations where they seek to explore high-priority work items in their Product Backlog, such that they’re ready to be worked on with little to no additional conversation. Scrum teams often refer to this kind of conversation as Backlog Refinement or Backlog Grooming, where their short-term goal is to make sure they’re prepared for the next Sprint Planning event. They may also choose to refine additional high-priority items from the backlog, to help them prefer for subsequent Sprints.
What’s the Benefit?
Backlog Refinement helps ensure that the highest priority user stories are ready to be worked on, saving time during Sprint Planning, and also surfacing unknowns, dependencies, and risks which might need to be addressed.
Scrum teams often have a Backlog Refinement session around the mid-point of a Sprint, and in some cases have more than one such conversation per Sprint.
Who attends Backlog Refinement?
- Product Owner (PO)
- Scrum Team Members who will co-create the outcome
- Scrum Team members who will co-validate and test the outcome.
- Scrum Master (Optional facilitator)
- Definition of Ready *
- Prioritized Work Items
- Roadmaps, Objectives, Goals
* Some Scrum teams have a formal “Definition of Ready” (DoR) that they agree to and revisit from time to time, which informs which attributes each work item is expected to have before it can be worked on during a Sprint. Especially for teams that have been together for a while, a shared, tacit understanding of what “ready” means for them is often sufficient, without having a formal DoR.
- Stories meeting the Definition of Ready (DoR)
Preparing for Backlog Refinement
Product Owner (PO) Preparation
The PO should prepare a list of high-priority candidate work items, aligning with any Epics, Features, and/or Product Roadmaps, ideally at least a day or so before the Backlog Refinement conversation is to take place.
The team should review the candidate work items so they can think through questions and dependencies.
The facilitator ensures Product Roadmaps, Features and Epics are available if needed. For collocated teams, other preparations include making sure the physical work space is ready for use, and that materials such as Post-it Notes, index cards, Sharpies, markers, and white boards are available.
- The PO reviews the highest priority candidate work items.
- Team members ask questions to better understand the Why and What, with particular attention on the Acceptance Criteria, which inform which conditions need to be true to call the work item “done.”
- Team members ensure they have the same understanding of the technical approach they plan to take – the How.
- For teams that estimate work items, they include an estimate of the work item’s relative size.
- If a work item is too big for a single Sprint, it should be should into one or more parts.
- If it’s not possible to make a particular work item ready during the conversation, an action plan is agreed to, so that it’s possible to obtain the missing information.
- The conversation continues until all of the candidate work items have been discussed, or meeting time limit is reached.
Additional Guidelines for Backlog Refinement
- Many teams employ the INVEST mnemonic, created by Bill Wake, to make sure each work item has the following attributes:
- Independent – The work item should be self-contained.
- Negotiable- Each work item is an invitation to a conversation; during team conversation, other ideas may surface that present a simpler way to address the business need.
- Valuable – Each work item should have inherent business value.
- Estimable – Each work item should be sufficiently well-understood to make an informed comparison on whether it is bigger or smaller than other work items.
- Small – Work items should be reasonably small, such that it is possible to complete many of them during any given iteration (Sprint).
- Testable – It should be clear what conditions need to be satisfied for the work item to be considered done.
- For teams that have a Definition of Ready (DoR), review it from time, e.g., during a Sprint Retrospective, to make sure everyone has the same understanding of what “ready” means.
- Practices differ from team to team when it comes to who attends Backlog Refinement. On many teams, all team members attend, while on other teams, a smaller group might attend, for instance, the Product Owner, the Scrum Master, a Tech Lead (or similar subject matter expert), a User Experience practitioner, and a Business Analyst.
- Some teams employ a construct known as “Three Amigos”. The idea is that groups of three form, where each group has a person who is knowledgeable of a particular domain, e.g, the business domain, the coding domain, the data domain. Thus each Three Amigos group might refine a subset of the work items on its own, then reconvene with a larger group.
- Backlog Refinement is more likely to be an effective use of time if there is clarity in advance on which work items are to be reviewed.
- To minimize interruptions and improve flow, it can be helpful to sequence meetings together, e.g., to have a Backlog Refinement session immediately after a Daily Scrum.
- Although not all teams estimate work items, for those that do, when estimates differ significantly among team members for a particular work item, that is a sign that further refinement is needed before that work item is ready.
Backlog Refinement Video
Backlog Refinement Podcasts
Backlog Refinement Example
Authored by Steve Moubray
Edited by Philip Rogers
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash
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