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Grooming your backlog


Write down everything you need to do.
Put the list in order of importance.
Work from the top down—from most important to least important.
Stop when you run out of time or money.
That’s it.

That’s a backlog.

My mother-in-law is coming to visit. My wife wants me to do a bunch of chores.

Here’s the list:

  • Sweep the walk
  • Mow the lawn
  • Wash the windows
  • Put out the lawn table and chairs for lunch

Honestly, it’s more work than I can really get done before she arrives. Where do I begin?

Well, first, there are some this-before-that chores. “Mow the yard” needs to come before “sweep the walk” and “put out the lawn chairs.” I mean, I could do those first but then I’d have to sweep the walk again after I mowed and I’d also have to move the chairs onto the lawn, then out of the way so I can mow, then move them back again.

And while we’re at it, explain “wash the windows.” Can that be broken into smaller chores? How about doing the windows on the front of the house or only the windows that my mother-in-law will see. So let’s reorder that list and expand a couple of items:

  • Mow the front lawn
  • Sweep the walk
  • Mow the back lawn
  • Put out the lawn table and chairs for lunch
  • Wash the windows on the front of the house
  • Wash the windows on the back of the house.

And really, the windows aren’t that messy so if we run out of time, I’ll just save those last two items for next weekend.

But now it’s crunch time. I mowed the front and swept the walk but mother is due early. A quick check with my wife and we agree to put the tables and chairs in the front yard for lunch and just hope she doesn’t look in the back yard at all. Or try to look through the windows.

I think grooming the backlog is one of the biggest problems for product managers and product owners. While it was pretty simple in this explanation, it gets much harder when “management” (my wife) insists that it all be done when there just isn’t time to do it.

Imagine if my wife asked me to start with the mowing but halfway through, she changed her mind and wanted me to wash the windows. I have to put away the mower, get out the ladder and the pail and soap, and start washing. But then she says, “No, on second thought, do the lawn first.” Now I have to put the washing paraphernalia away and get out the lawn mower again. Every time she changes her mind I lose a half-hour of productivity.

Does that sound familiar?

For many organizations, we’re asking for $20 million in development with a $10 million budget.

We hear leaders asking, “How can you get my developers to work longer hours?” or “How can I get them to work harder?

I say, “You’re probably getting all the development you’re paying for.”

That said, today’s methods often allow your team to deliver more faster with higher quality—assuming that you’re not constantly changing the team composition and objectives.

Using a backlog, you list all the things that your market requires, prioritize the list, work from the top until you run out of time or money. Everyone gets a single view of product priorities. It works for chores; it works for stories.

You’re probably getting all the development you’re paying for. [Tweet this]

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