Why are product and sprint goals rarely used?

A recurring theme in product development teams is that while there’s a backlog, the direction is often unclear; developers work on tasks, but it's challenging to connect daily work with the long-term direction of the product.

This is often because the product vision is vague and distant, and product management has forgotten to define clear product goals. In the absence of near-term goals, the team will find it very difficult to come up with goals for any sprint. This is often the reason why sprint goals fail. 

Product vision is not enough

A product vision should reflect its role several years from now. It should be an ambitious goal outlining where the development team and product management want to take the product.

Agile frameworks talk about the importance of product vision, but often it’s either forgotten, buried in the product manager’s desk drawer collecting dust, or hasn’t been updated to reflect the current situation.

The product vision needs to be kept fresh, but it also needs smaller, step-by-step goals that lead the product toward that vision. These can be broken down into both product goals and sprint goals. In most cases, the nearest product goals should be just a few months down the line.

Sprint goals are derived from the nearest product goal

An agile team sets sprint goals at the beginning, related to the nearest product goal. Sprint goals keep the team on track, and daily stand-ups ensure that nobody starts working on an unrelated backlog item.

The absence of product goals leads to problems

Often in product development, there are no clearly defined objectives. Attempts to use sprint goals fade away because they turn out to be difficult to implement. Is it any wonder that the product’s direction is unclear or that it’s a challenge to ground tasks in the overall vision?

Ideally, product goals should be set two to six months in the future. Sometimes, the interval between them is longer, especially if the solution being developed is more complex and requires collaboration between multiple teams.

Product goals make it easier to prioritize

Once a product goal is defined, it's much easier to introduce and maintain sprint goals. Development teams should always approach the product vision with the mindset of breaking it down into objectives and then further into sprint goals. I call this a “goal hierarchy.”

Having strong product goals is invaluable for backlog management and prioritization. My advice to product owners is to only accept items into the backlog that contribute to the next product goal.

For other requests, the answer is, “Not right now.” Keeping the backlog small makes it easier to refine and increases the team’s agility. Future work can always be managed in a roadmap.

The product goal defines the optimal backlog size

When used this way, the product goal defines the optimal backlog size. If the interval between product goals naturally falls within two months, work in the backlog should also take around the same amount of time.

Easier implementation of sprint goals

The product manager is primarily responsible for defining product goals. These should be done in collaboration with the product owner. Development teams and product leaders should remember to introduce and maintain product and sprint goals simultaneously.

Goals help each other—sprint goals are easier to introduce when product goals are defined, and these become easier to achieve when sprint goals are routine.

Product goals should not be static

The product goal can change. One of the biggest benefits of agile methodology is that the team can always use the latest information and lessons learned during planning. The product goal can also evolve based on the latest experiences.

The benefits of using product goals

  • Teams find it easier to use sprint goals.
  • Sprint goals enhance agile performance.
  • Motivation improves when work is clearly linked with the direction of the product.
  • Backlog size management becomes easier.

Defining and using good product goals requires practice but offers many benefits in terms of higher efficiency and quality and a tighter backlog that helps product managers and product owners alike.

An experienced coach can be of great help with product goals, vision, strategy, and backlog management. Check out this article to learn more.

Published: October 23, 2023

AgileProduct management