Why is backlog grooming important?

Your team backlog is made up of all the incomplete user stories that are not in the current sprint. They are the stories that have been written but not yet done. They tend to add up over time and can become outdated. It is helpful to tend to them on a regular basis.

What does it mean to groom the backlog?

The term “grooming the backlog” means going through the user stories to evaluate what is there and editing the existing user stories. When I first learned about backlog grooming, it was also introduced as “story time.” Whichever name you call it, it is still the same thing: cleaning up existing user stories.

Why do it?

The backlog can turn into a dumping ground for old user stories you forgot you have created, and perhaps do not need anymore. You may even have duplicate stories sitting in the backlog. Sometimes team members will have good ideas and put them into the backlog so that the team can remember them for later. However, over time, the backlog can become cluttered. Much like the disorganized tool shed that has three hammers and other duplicate tools, it needs to be organized, so you know what is there and can find it when you need it. This also allows you to keep your stories up to date.

As you move forward in product development, you continue to learn new information based on conversations with customers, demos, and research. You will be able to incorporate new information and make updates to stories based on what you have learned. You will also prioritize work you will perform in the next sprint, so grooming your stories ensures that there are stories ready to be worked.

When to groom the backlog

Your team can pick the time that works best, but it is best to schedule a consistent, dedicated time. It is also important that it is done before you begin the next sprint. However, your team needs the stories prepared and ready when the sprint begins.

Best practices for grooming the backlog

Use these tips for grooming your backlog:

  • Backlog grooming is done by the product owner and the development team. This ensures everyone has a clear understanding of the story, as well as buy-in for the work.
  • Make sure you know the goals and features targeted for the next sprint to ensure the stories support the goals.
  • Identify stories you have already written that support these goals and features and review them for accuracy and readiness.
  • When needed, update the stories to reflect new information and better detail (sizing, acceptance criteria, etc.)
  • Make sure your stories are detailed, accurate, and sized correctly.
  • Identify gaps for which you need stories written.
  • Write stories to fill in these gaps.
  • Prioritize the stories to be worked in the next sprint.
  • Assign story estimates to stories that do not have them yet.
  • You may need to split user stories that are too big to fit them into the upcoming sprint.
  • Plan sufficient time to work through your stories. If your team is new, you will need more time for these grooming sessions. However, even as you get more experience, your team will need time for conversations about the stories to ensure they are accurate. Plan 2-4 hours of story-grooming time for a two-week sprint.
  • Make sure all participants are clear on what you aim to accomplish during these backlog grooming sessions.
  • Remove user stories that are no longer relevant to your project.
  • It is also valuable to look not only at stories for the next sprint but at the overall backlog from a high-level perspective. You may be alerted to research spikes or other longer-range work that you need to plan for.

Backlog grooming takes discipline

It can be easy to dismiss this activity but keeping up-to-date on backlog grooming helps your team keep stories up-to-date. Agile practices take discipline. This is a good one to incorporate into your team activities.

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