backlog grooming

Backlog Grooming: The Linchpin of Project and Product Management

The concepts of project management and product management are distinct – the first is tactical while the latter is strategic.

However, it’s common for both to be confused with one another.

Project management and product management deal with challenges that are unique to their job scopes. Not to mention, the responsibilities of project managers and product managers are vastly different.

But one thing is certain, they both complement each other and are equally important to business functions.

In fact, both are connected by a key practice in agile development called backlog grooming!

Before going any further, let’s take a deeper look at the functions within project management and product management.

Distinguishing project Management from product management

Here’s a simple way to distinguish the two:

Product management answers the questions “What needs to be developed for the product?” and “Why does the product need it?”

On the other hand, project management answers the questions “How do we develop it?” “Who will develop it?” and “When do we develop it?”

This is why it is said that product management is strategic while project management is tactical.

While product management involves envisioning the product, gathering and prioritizing requirements, and maximizing value delivery, project management focuses on realizing the vision and executing it within the means of available resources.

So, how do we make sure that both can complement each other successfully and effectively? That’s where backlog grooming comes in.

Understanding backlog grooming

Let’s begin by defining the backlog.

A backlog is essentially a list of prioritized items that the product/project team has to work on in an iteration or sprint.

You might think, “Oh, like a to-do list?” No, far from it.

The backlog captures development plans, initiatives, requirements, and units of work that the teams have to deliver in order to meet sprint objectives.

These items are mainly derived from the product/project roadmap and may also be added based on customer or stakeholder needs.

Types of backlogs

Multiple types of backlogs exist depending on the nature of a business. However, for agile teams, the most prominent ones are the product or project backlog, and the sprint backlog.

So, if you’re in product management then you’d have a product backlog, but if you’re in project management then you’d have a project backlog.

Both serve the same purpose and are managed the same way, but the types of items in the backlogs would differ.

For one, the product backlog would contain items that cover the scope of the product, i.e., functional features, requirements, and initiatives.

The project backlog then would contain action items that would deliver said functional features, requirements, and initiatives.

While the product/project backlog contains items that are critical to the development and lifecycle of a product/project, the sprint backlog only contains action items that are critical to meet a sprint’s objectives.

No items should be in the sprint backlog unless they have been logged into the product/project backlog and groomed accordingly.

In other words, the product/project backlog is linked to the sprint backlog via backlog grooming.

But what does backlog grooming mean?

Backlog grooming 

Backlog grooming or scrum refinement is a key practice in agile development – but surprisingly, often neglected.

What happens during grooming?

  1. The product owner and project managers will review backlog items and arrange them according to priority levels.
  2. Items with the highest priorities will be refined with the necessary details to give the team context as to what will be developed.
  3. Items that have been thoroughly groomed and prioritized will be moved to the sprint backlog.

It’s an incremental process that helps product owners align product priorities with the project managers so that both of their teams can deliver the highest production values.

During scrum refinement, it is actually key that backlog items are supported with all the information so that the work can be carried out efficiently.

Critical information includes estimates, due dates, item description or instructions, assignee, and relevant attachments if applicable.

Agility also depends on how effective you groom your backlog. Proper and consistent backlog grooming allows you to manage new requirements and address sudden blockers.

Backlog grooming should be regulated and is best done once a sprint,  ¾ of the way through the sprint to make sure that it can support upcoming sprint objectives.

So how does backlog grooming become the linchpin of product and project management?

Backlog grooming: Connecting product with project management

In product management, the product owner is responsible for the management of the product backlog – adding initiatives and other items to the backlog, prioritizing the items, and making sure that the backlog is transparent to all.

Meanwhile, in project management, the project manager is responsible for breaking down prioritized initiatives in the backlog into smaller units of work, adding estimates to each item, and managing the resources needed to deliver these items in upcoming iterations.

Through backlog grooming, product owners and project managers work together to accomplish the following:

  • Prioritize backlog items accurately
  • Gather requirements for prioritized backlog items
  • Decide on items that will deliver the highest value to the product
  • Establish realistic expectations on delivery of deliverables
  • Assess the risk involved in product development
  • Avoid scope creep

Once this is done, you can streamline sprint planning focusing on value delivery.

More importantly, grooming helps the two key functions respond to stakeholders’ needs appropriately, manage priorities effectively, and achieve business goals consistently.

Now let’s master backlog grooming best practices for product and project management.

Backlog grooming: Best practices for product and project management

The list below details the steps for backlog grooming and its best practices.

  • Outline your ‘Definition of Ready,’ to help everyone on both sides of the teams know if a backlog item has been groomed and refined thoroughly.
  • Involve the right people in your backlog grooming session (i.e., the product owner, project manager, scrum master, development team, and so on) so that no input is missed.
  • Arrange the items based on the planned roadmap as well as how ready they are, how much value they deliver, and their priority values. 
  • Make sure to break down a big task into smaller units of work so that the deliverables can be detailed accurately.
  • Define the dependencies between items to improve prioritization and collaboration. This is also to ensure there won’t be any blockers once the new sprint starts.
  • Gather the requirements and acceptance criteria for prioritized items so that accurate value can be delivered.
  • Refine prioritized items with adequate information to provide context and clarity.
  • Work with the rest of the team to estimate each item. Estimates help team members grapple with the weight of each item and the effort required.
  • Add items for upcoming work (i.e., new feature requests) to the backlog once the previously prioritized items have been escalated to the sprint backlog.
  • Prioritize new items accordingly – this may change during the next grooming session.
  • Remove items that are no longer relevant to development so that the backlog is not treated like a dumping ground for ideas.
  • Evaluate your need for a grooming tool to improve the grooming process and speed up refinement sessions.

Backlog grooming tools

The following are some prominent backlog grooming tools that you can consider leveraging.

  • Excel sheets

Excel sheets are great for product owners and project managers that operate in medium-sized organizations. If your company has yet to reach a commendable level of digital maturity, then Excel is a good start. However, you have to build your backlogs from scratch which can be time-consuming. Albeit, there are plenty of free templates available online that you can easily adapt.

  • Issue and project tracking tools

Modern-day product and project management tend to rely on issue and project tracking tools to help them work more quickly and efficiently. Tools like Jira are greatly favored by agile teams because the product and project management environment has been automatically set up for them. It allows for automated workflows and the best thing is, the backlogs are readily structured for you.

  • Third-party backlog grooming app

If you’re using Jira, and you manage large-scale projects and need streamlined capabilities, then a Jira backlog grooming app like Excel-like Issue Editor for Jira is the solution for you. It offers an easy-to-use Excel-like interface and allows you to groom up to 10,000 backlog items at once

Marching towards product and project management excellence

A lot of factors come into play if we want to talk about product and project management excellence.

But through effective backlog grooming alone, you can already be sure that you’re ten steps ahead of others in achieving excellence.

Bring your teams together and start grooming your backlog today!

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