Agile Software Development

Recognizing the Five Symptoms of a Poor Backlog

Is your backlog a beautiful thing to behold, or does it have a face only a mother could love? Well, if you get used to ugly and disorganized, you may not be able to tell the difference anymore. So in an article for Scrum Alliance, Pratik Kothari shares five symptoms of a poor backlog incited by a struggling product owner:

  1. Poor planning
  2. Not enough detail
  3. More than 20 percent churn in objectives
  4. Features dissatisfying the customer
  5. Running out of funds

Sick Sprints

A sprint planning session that does not use business priorities to inform the sprint is not a planning session at all. The product owner must have a clear understanding of business needs and where value will be best created among backlog items. The only time Kothari believes it is okay for priority uncertainty to exist is when teams are shifting into agile for the first time. Otherwise, the product owner needs to tighten the screws and get better about communication. But along those same lines, the agile team needs to take responsibility for ensuring enough detail is captured in stories during grooming. This is important for reducing risk.

About the problem of having more than 20 percent churn in objectives, Kothari writes this:

If you are running two-week sprints and your business objectives are constantly shuffling, this is an indication that your backlog is not solid. Your product owner has to work hard to lock down the objectives. Some degree of churn is expected, but if it is frequent and more than 20%, the product owner deserves feedback.

… It’s OK to have churn to support the business, but if it is the result of poor backlog planning, course correction is required. All types of changes have a cost associated with them. The product owner should be able to recognize this pain and work toward solidifying the backlog grooming process.

If the team delivers a feature only for it to be met with disappointment or indifference by the customer, this is another sign something is wrong. If customers are dissatisfied, it means their voices were not adequately heard and addressed. When this happens, invite them to actively participate in the planning process, so that they will be much better heard the next time around.

Lastly, a team can run out of funds when it picks out too many nice-to-have features to work on and not enough genuinely mandatory features. Learn the difference while you can!

Kothari offers two general recommendations for improvement. The first is to set expectations by asking the product owner to create clear acceptance criteria and a definition of ready. The second is to schedule regular backlog grooming sessions with the product owner, product manager, and someone from the technical team.

For further thoughts, you can view the original article here: https://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2018/january/recognizing-the-five-symptoms-of-a-poor-backlog

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