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What goes around, comes around.

This is clearly evident when the Galactic Empire dealt a devastating blow to the Rebel Alliance forces at Hoth and on the other bases they had.  The Rebels destroyed the first Death Star and so the Empire responded in kind.  If a development team does well and plows through the requirements fast, then more work is expected to keep on coming as the product becomes more concrete and more features are wanted.  Requirements can bite back hard when they are not managed well.  In Scrum the requirements are documented in the Product Backlog – requiring efficient management.

Ideally the backlog should look like:

  • the top items on the backlog are well-defined, have estimates, and they are the top-priority work to be done
  • there should be two Sprints worth of top backlog items which are well defined and have estimates, ready to go into a Sprint
  • the items are prioritized according to their business value and estimates
  • the items on the bottom can be big and not well-defined, they will be discussed in Backlog Maintenance Sessions

It is up to the team to judge if a backlog item is well-defined or not.  I think what is most important is that the team has a very good understanding of what is required to complete the work for a backlog item.  Well defined backlog items also provide good documentation for the project.

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If the backlog is neglected it can deal much pain to the Scrum Team.  The team must endure long estimation sessions and long discussions about items on the backlog.  Sprints can not continue to run smoothly and some sprints may not be started at all if there is no set of backlog items which are ready to go into a sprint.  The team will be at a loss on what to do and would waste time waiting to know what should be done for the project.  The Product Owner will be hard pressed to cope with the demand for items to do for the project.

It is important for the team to spend adequate time to take care of the Product Backlog.  And yes, the whole team should be involved in managing the Product Backlog and not just the Product Owner.  The team provides valuable feedback as to whether items in the backlog are clear.  The Product Owner also relies on the estimation of the team on the effort involved in getting an item done. This information is a factor to the prioritization of the items on the backlog.  The team is encouraged to look at the top of the backlog and ask questions.  This will help the Product Owner write better definitions for the items.  This is a good habit to form for all the members of the team.  The Scrum Master should motivate the team to regularly review the backlog.

Having regular Backlog Maintenance Sessions is highly recommended.  At Chromedia we do a regular 1 hour session every week.  This helps us to stay on top of things and reduce the stress involved in managing the backlog. We still have a long way to go in terms of keeping a healthy Product Backlog but we have made significant progress, and it has helped us deliver products of higher quality.

“Luke, I am your father” – Darth Vader, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Jason Coppage, Co-Founder