Maintaining a Great Product Backlog
For many organisations, the start of a Scrum adoption tends to focus a great deal on team formation, dynamics and challenges. While an important part of the holistic organisational system, the development team shouldn’t necessarily be the key focus early on. Organisations seldom place the same level of scrutiny and emphasis on upstream activities, those activities that decide what we should be working on next and how best to get the definition and order of that value to the development team. The product backlog is one of the most important artefacts in Scrum and I don’t say this lightly. Unmaintained and misunderstood, it can become the single most disruptive artefact, well maintained, a tremendously valuable one. From our experience the three most important aspects a product owner should focus on to maintain a healthy product backlog are as follows. Read more about the product owner role in our blog.
“Spend time in identifying your key stakeholders and how they impact your product”.
Behind every product backlog there are people who hold a vested interest in the vision and the outcome. These stakeholders should, from the outset, be bought into the vision shared by the product owner, understanding it’s intent, customer focus, and business satisfaction. As the product owner, you must understand how to manage your stakeholders such as having a clear cadence for reviewing key deliverables as well as potential features. For example, the features identified must meet the product vision, if they do not, the product owner must have the authority to remove the feature out of the product backlog. Essentially this regular cadence forms part of the product backlog refinement activities shared with both stakeholders and development teams. Most importantly however, spend time in identifying your key stakeholders and how they impact your product.
“Ultimately, the product owner must show boldness to experiment with enough features to discover if their hypothesis is correct”.
Focus on Value
Despite applying Scrum faithfully, most organisations in our experience, fail to see the need to maximise their attention on the most valuable features in the product backlog. A major part of this is the product owner’s inability to manage stakeholders effectively as well as failing to understand the product proposition well enough to extract very valuable features. As a product owner, it’s your responsibility to maintain a good enough domain knowledge about the product as well as maintain the authority to only include those features that will meet the vision most cost-effectively. Ultimately, the product owner must show boldness to experiment with enough features to discover if their hypothesis is correct. With this regular feedback, both the stakeholders and the development teams receive both the market feedback and technical feedback which in turn allows you as the product owner to make clear and critical decisions. All this knowledge is fed back into the product backlog to ensure value is realised, iteratively and incrementally.
“While a good product owner spends time maximising value, a great product owner looks to remove waste from the product backlog”.
Very few product owners in our experience realise the power of removing waste. As one of the agile principle’s states, Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done is essential. As the product owner, work to understand what features don’t meet your vision and remove these from the product backlog. While a good product owner spends time maximising value, a great product owner looks to remove waste from the product backlog. Educate your stakeholders and help them understand why this is important. Every time you receive feedback from customers or stakeholders whether in sprint reviews or directly from the market, consider what new waste the product backlog might hold and what you must do to remove it.
Maintaining a great product backlog isn’t difficult to understand, however, it is challenging given the depth of scrum experience within your organisation, how well people have been educated in agile ways of working and ultimately how well your organisation responds to failing. That said, it’s not impossible and we have witnessed some of the best maintenance of product backlogs in the most challenging of situations.
I often akin to maintaining a great product backlog with panning for gold. It takes a lot of effort and time to collect the raw materials and by hand sift through them removing the dirt. However, in the end, you are left with golden nuggets that of course hold the most value.