I was doing some long overdue trimming of an apple tree the other day. Having been neglected for five years, it looked more like a bush than a tree, with lots of small branches that only consumed energy, rather than bearing fruit.
I did what you’re supposed to do:
Cut off branches that grew too high and wide
Snipped off smaller branches that made the tree look bushy (some growing in the completely wrong direction)
I was even coaching the tree, telling it: “there is no point trying to grow there, you already have other branches there”.
After a few hours, I was rewarded with a beautiful, harmonious-looking tree with branches in the right places. Each branch gets plenty of sunlight and is ready to produce apples.
So what does this have to do with managing backlogs?
A lot, it turns out.
Backlog management IS gardening
If you neglect your backlog, it will eventually look like the bushy apple tree. Not pretty, and with branches growing out of control in all different directions. In the end, it will “produce less fruit” for your organization, compared to a well-maintained backlog.
As a Product Owner, YOU are the gardener
Backlog maintenance is not as rewarding as gardening because it is not just you and the tree. As a Product Owner, if you cut a backlog item, you must then often tell somebody that their request just got dropped. This is difficult but necessary.
You cannot allow it to grow bushy. A well-trimmed backlog is in everybody’s interest. But you need courage, and you need to understand that you are doing necessary work.
Because there is beauty in a short, controllable, fast-flowing backlog. You know this if you have ever looked after a messy, too-large one. There is a world of difference between having a few tens of items versus one with hundreds of items.
The dangers of a too-large backlog
A too-large backlog is dangerous for various reasons:
Large backlogs (with hundreds of items) tend to develop “bottom mud”: old, smelly, decomposing items that nobody wants to touch, and that will never get done.
Large backlogs will develop a “ghost backlog” near the top, which is the real backlog. Anything you truly need to get done, you place near the top. So why do you need all those other items there? As a reminder that they might be done some day?
It is too easy to add “just one more thing” to a large backlog. “There are already a thousand things there, so why not one more?”. This degrades the Product Owner’s critical decision of accepting something to the backlog
Nobody wants to maintain a backlog that is too large. It is difficult to motivate the team to scan through the whole thing.
The Product Owner’s backlog gardening tools
There are several ways you as the Product Owner can manage the backlog better. Here are the most important ones.
You should understand the velocity and compare it to the inflow. The first step towards controlling your backlog is to measure and know its size and how fast it grows. Also, monitor metrics like item count and average age.
Organizing items differently
Observe where new items tend to go. If you feel it is possible to place a new request at the bottom, and still feel confident that it gets done quickly enough, you are ok.
But if you often feel the need to place an item near the top, that can be a red flag that your backlog could be too large.
When the backlog grows beyond a few tens of items, start to use epics, themes, and components to manage it. But be careful not to misuse this, and allow the backlog to grow beyond 150-200 items.
The backlog isn’t the only possible place for requests. Some requests deserve to go on there, but most do not.
Rejected ideas go in the rubbish bin.
Interesting ideas that may get a nod later, if they grow in value, can be placed onto a wishlist.
Important items that likely will get done, but are not urgent right now, can be placed onto a roadmap.
Using other workflows
As a backlog item advances through its lifecycle, you will understand it better, and feel less uncertain about it. This should be reflected in the workflow you use for it. Epics, stories, bugs, and subtasks all should have their own workflows. Use these workflows to control the refinement of items.
Armed with these tools, backlog management becomes more enjoyable and fun. Good luck with your backlog gardening!
Published: December 5, 2022