Is your backlog sometimes too large? Backlogs tend to grow until they get hard to manage. Saying no to a request is so much harder than just adding it to the backlog. 

Because you’re a nice person, and who knows? Maybe a feature request you say no to, would have turned out to a major success.

Great news! You can have the cake and eat it too—by having a separate wishlist. 

In this blog post we will break down what happens when your backlog is out of control, why a wishlist solves the problems, and how to create one. 

When is a backlog too large? 

It depends a lot on the situation. The environment your team operates in, your technology, and the organization’s delivery dependencies, all dictate how far team commitments have to span. 

But there is a general rule of thumb, and it says: the Product Owner should try to keep the backlog under 150 items and under 6 months of team effort.

Why large backlogs are bad for you

There are many negative side-effects, and some of them tend to compound or create vicious cycles. Here are a few: 

  • When items are added to a large backlog, they have to wait a long time until implementation. This makes your team less agile.
  • It is harder to reject a new request when your backlog is already large. “The backlog already has 1,500 items, why not add one more?”. The Product Owner will then feel less in control over what the team commits to do. This again leads to poorer prioritization.
  • Items decay. If your backlog has 12 months of work, and you today add a new item, by the time you get to it your needs are likely different. 
  • Your team will feel less motivated to refine the quality of a large backlog. 
  • When you add a request to a large backlog, the promise and commitment you make is weaker. Adding an item to a year-long queue is not much of a promise. This reduces trust in the organization.

Using roadmaps and wishlists for a better backlog

Your Product Owner should not allow the backlog to grow too large. To keep things in perspective, and make sure there is a long-term plan for what the team can deliver, roadmaps and wishlists are important tools. 

Let’s look at how the backlog, roadmap and wishlist are different:

  • Backlog – a short-term (0-6 months), strong commitment plan for what the team will deliver
  • Roadmap – a long term (6 months – 5 years), lower-commitment plan for what the team aims to deliver
  • Wishlist – a list of items whose value is unproven and uncertain, needing further tests to determine if and when they make sense to implement. The team is saying “maybe”.

Yes, no or maybe

When a Product Owner gets a request for the team to do something or solve a problem, he must estimate if it is valuable enough to deserve a place in the backlog. Some requests make it to the backlog,, some get rejected outright.

Sometimes the request is interesting enough, but the Product Owner cannot make a firm estimate on the value of the request. She may choose to add the request to a wishlist instead of rejecting it. 

Be crystal clear when saying maybe

The Product Owner must be very clear when adding an item to the wishlist. “Maybe” does not mean yes.

Adding an item to the wishlist does not mean a commitment to deliver it. What it means is the Product Owner will test, research, and actively collect the information needed to make the decision later. So when notifying the requester that the item is added to the wishlist, the Product Owner should ask for any supporting information to make the decision later.

And example: New feature for a single customer

A salesperson asks for a new feature that at the time would only be interesting to a single customer. The business case of that single customer would not justify spending the effort to develop the feature. 

The Product Owner can add this interesting feature to the wishlist and ask the salesperson to find out if other customers would be interested in the same feature, with a draft pricing model. The Product Owner would also discuss the feature with other customers and sales departments. If they find out there is enough demand, the item goes into the backlog. 

How wishlists help teams with backlog management

With wishlists, 

  • The Product Owner’s “Yes, I will add it to the backlog” becomes a stronger and clearer message. 
  • With a shorter backlog, it is easier to estimate delivery time.
  • When the backlog is shorter, the team is more motivated to manage, refine and scan it.
  • The quality of the items on the actual backlog improves. 
  • The team doesn’t feel as stressed about a large and looming committed backlog. 
  • Technical debt tickets get more bandwidth.
  • You can focus your refinement on the correct items, and value-testing activities on the wishlist.

How to create a wishlist in practice

Where to create it

You have many alternatives. For example, it can be:

  • a separate project or list in your work control tool (such as Jira). 
  • a separate status in your workflow (I prefer this one myself). 
  • maintained in spreadsheets or Confluence pages.

What to include in an item

Always remember to add the originator of the wish to the ticket. It will be hard to follow up without it. Otherwise, the wish should be treated as any other backlog item. Use the user story format when applicable. It is important to state the what and the why of the request.

How to manage it

If the product has a separate Product Manager and Product Owner, they should together to manage the wishlist, and meet regularly. A common challenge with wishlists is that they are forgotten. Set up a regular session once every 1-3 months to go through the wishlist, and agree which items need following up or testing.

Managing the two lists are different, as the items in them serve different purposes. You don’t know the value of the wishlist items, so focus will be on determining the value. This can mean customer interviews, prototyping, simple and fast A/B tests, or other growth hacking types of activities. 

The items on the backlog already have a high enough priority. You know they are needed and valuable. These items should be refined to increase the likelihood of creating the right solution for the identified problem.

Enjoy your shorter backlog

I recommend using wishlists to assist your backlog management. Just remember – be very clear with the “maybe” message and remember to regularly review your wishlist. 

Published: Sep 16, 2022

AgileProduct management