How to improve Scrum Backlog Refinement?

Backlog refinement is important. During backlog refinement (usually done parallel to a sprint) a Scrum team ensures that work for the next sprints is prepared. As such it prevents that teams commit to work that they do not yet understand. Therefore, the team sits with the Product Owner and stakeholders in backlog refinement workshops. There they discuss the backlog in the near and further future and split the work in smaller portions. This ensures a continuous flow of valuable work that is sufficiently detailed and feasible.

 

The 3 most common mistakes we encounter in practice are:

  • Mistake 1: Not doing it. The main mistake is not to do backlog refinement. That way the team plans without understanding the work. Continuous refinement of the product backlog is crucial for Scrum. Reserve 5-10 % of the team’s time for this. It is earned back easily because it increases velocity largely.
  • Mistake 2: Too much and too fast. A common mistake is to do too much in a backlog refinement session so there is no real time for discussions and to understand each other. Backlog refinement should be about exchanging ideas and learning. So, don’t do too much and don’t go too fast.
  • Mistake 3: The wrong people. A common mistake is to think that backlog refinement should be done with just a few people. However, it is a knowledge exchange session. So the whole Scrum team must be there. Don’t work with a separate ‘ready-team’. That will only create a waterfall in disguise.

There are also tips to make product backlog refinement run more smoothly in practice. Our top 5 tips is:

  • Tip 1: Put the product backlog visible on the wall – Backlog refinement is a continuous process. It also involves team members checking this out, sleeping about it and thinking it through. Putting the complete backlog visual and transparent on the wall really helps. It also makes a great location to do the refinement itself.
  • Tip 2: Iterate backlog refinement – Don’t think stories are understood at once. Teams need to discuss a story a few times. Try to discuss each story at least two times before it is pokered. So also have the product owner discuss stories that are still vague for himself/herself too.
  • Tip 3: Ensure that everyone is present – Backlog refinement is done for knowledge exchange on user value, purpose and possible directions for solutions. Without possible knowledge exchange the meeting has no use. So only do it with the development team and product owner together. Also invite stakeholders and end-users to such sessions. Their input is often very valuable.
  • Tip 4: Use a Definition-of-Ready – Backlog refinement will result in stories that are ready for a sprint. As such let the team and po agree on a Definition of Ready and use that to bring stories to be ready for Sprint. Don’t refine too much work. Try to have about two sprints of work that is Ready for sprint.
  • Tip 5: Schedule Backlog refinement in everyone’s calendar – Backlog refinement takes time. Schedule 5-10% of a team’s sprint effort for such work. Prepare future sprints in such refinement sessions. For example schedule a backlog refinement meeting of one hour twice a week. If there is nothing to discuss, they can always be cancelled.

(note: product backlog refinement is also referred to as: ‘backlog grooming‘. Being a non-native English speaker I was made aware of the UK-meaning of the word ‘grooming‘, just after we made the movie. In this blog I therefore have changed to the word ‘refinement’. The video could not be altered unfortunately.)