How to streamline your team's product backlog

Headshot of Richie Harris, Chief Technology Officer of SingleMind UX Design and Software Development firm

Written by Richie Harris

Time keeps on slipping

Every project fights along at least two axes, budget and timeline. Another axis that can lead to trouble in a project is resourcing. Risk in each of these factors can be mitigated by thoughtful backlog grooming and task management. A good start to backlog grooming is to develop a product roadmap. Start from the high-level business goals, and break those down into consumable tasks that can provide a granular view of the big picture. The initial backlog should consist of an outline of the ‘big ticket items’. A big ticket item can be either a technically challenging piece of the work, or even just a known unknown. Doing that work, and doing it well, takes time and the ability to look at both the forest and the trees, but it can play a vital role in the success of a project.

Like sand through an hourglass

In any given day you want to be able to point to things you’ve accomplished, and draw a straight line between the work done and the work left to do. Regular backlog grooming, the act of going back through the known ‘to dos’ and re-prioritizing or validating them, can pay dividends by identifying tasks that are either no longer valid, or even things that might be missing. Refactoring has a role in every technology project, but the more you can limit the scope of that, the better. Time lost to tasks that are poorly defined, or even tasks that are obviated as the project progresses is time you can’t get back. These are unforced errors that can be reduced with good organization. Also, if you’ve organized the work according to a product roadmap, you should be able to easily track progress and make adjustments as those known unknowns turn into definable work.

The only constant is change

The old adage ‘expect the unexpected’ never rang truer than in software development. As there are known unknowns, there are also¬†unknown unknowns. Priorities shift according to business needs, unforeseen technology challenges come up, timelines get adjusted, and on and on. Going back through your product backlog on a regular interval keeps you from losing sight of the big goals, and keeps your team on track to deliver on time and on budget. There will be times when you just need to shuffle a few things to realign, and then there will be times you have to completely redefine the work. In either case, you’ll want to make sure you keep your product roadmap up to date and on hand as well. If the roadmap gets out of alignment with the backlog it gets harder to manage priorities in a meaningful way.

Of space and time

Knowledge is never fixed. The science of epistemology tells us to take nothing for granted. What you know today can change, and being able to compare what you know today with what you knew yesterday can make the difference between a successful project and a slow-motion trainwreck. Once you’ve asserted your product roadmap you have created a basis upon which to build your backlog. Once you have extrapolated your backlog you’ve defined a clearer understanding of the steps that lead to project completion. Watch your step, but take regular moments to look up at the horizon and make sure you’re still pointed in the right direction.