Detailing Backlog Appropriately



On one of the projects I am managing currently, I noticed that the product backlog was actually growing rather than shrinking as we were progressing through sprints. At one point, there were close to hundred and fifty stories in the backlog, all detailed and ready for planning. Some were even accompanied by ready UI-designs. The reason for the increasing backlog size was that everything under the sun was being thrown into it for future development. While this might sound fine (you would want to write down somewhere the features you might need in the future and what better place to write them down than the backlog), there was something definitely going wrong.

I realised that every time we would plan a new sprint, instead of picking previously written stories from the backlog, we were writing new stories as the client had come up with a new feature that had priority over rest of the backlog. This is completely understandable and even recommended. After all, you would like to use the feedback you are receiving from the market to add new features. If the window of opportunity for a new feature is now, no point putting it on a backlog for later. It requires attention now. But what about all the stories (and the effort invested in detailing them and designing the UI for them) in the backlog? Soon they would become obsolete. They would never see the light of the day. If at all their turn would come, they would require changes (in both the functionality and the UI expected) as the current functionality would have undergone a change by then. In terms of Lean thinking, this was clearly muda (“waste in Japanese). I could have done better things with the time I invested in detailing those stories and helping create their UI-design.

The other day, I was watching a show on some television channel (I think it was Comedy Central) and I noticed the way they presented their schedule:

  • Now (the show currently being telecast)
  • Later (the show after the current one)
  • Never (the show after the “later” one)

This was a fun way to provide a relative schedule, especially the “never” part. Considering that I am always in a “meta” state of mind looking at things above their current context and trying to correlate aspects from different contexts, the schedule format hit me as a solution to my backlog problem.

While the stories in the current and immediate next sprint (“Now” part of the backlog) would be detailed enough, the stories in the next two to three sprints (“Later” part of the backlog) would be relatively coarse grained. Stories even further down in the backlog (“Never” part of the backlog) would have no detail whatsoever. They could be as simple as a single line, five-word statement (similar to epics in Scrum parlance). This would help the backlog stay current and sharp, help me focus my time on more important tasks, and reduce waste. Of course, we would continue to add to the backlog any item we “might” need in the future but it would not be as detailed as before, it would simply be a reminder, like a to-do.


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