Grooming a product backlog is an essential part of product management. Indeed, maintaining a healthy backlog is key to harnessing the creative potential of a company and efficiently building the best product possible.

In this post, we’ll explain what a product backlog is, the best practices for grooming it, and how collaborative and transparent backlog management can benefit everyone ⁠— not just the product team.

What is a product backlog?

This definition is important because it can mean different things to different people. 

Many often assume it’s a development backlog, which is a list of tasks and tickets waiting in JIRA or some other dev tool, approved and ready to go. Essentially it’s a to-do list: stories to be built, bugs or defects to be fixed, improvements that have been specced, and any other DevOp tasks. Ideally, a development backlog is concise, with enough detail that the dev team can work autonomously because the tasks are clear.

A product backlog, on the other hand, is a list of everything before it ends up in development. It’s not a list of everything you should do, it’s a list of everything you could do. Marty Cagan coined the term Opportunity Backlog, because this is a list of opportunities for the product and company to improve. It will include bad ideas that will be thrown out, likely by the product manager.

Trouble comes when your team confuses the two and puts all ideas and tasks in the same list. My advice? Don’t put ideas in the development backlog. That’s where ideas go to die. They are not thoroughly explored, discussed, measured or weighed. And it becomes a graveyard of team aspiration and input, because their suggestions go “nowhere.”

Separating backlogs can correct this perception, make other contributors feel valued, save the dev team’s time, and ultimately benefit the product and customer.

ProdPad separates them but keeps a synced connection between the two. It helps PMs manage the actual product backlog, and also integrates with many dev tools so that approved ideas automatically become tasks on the development backlog. Then it updates as work progresses, so users can see how the ideas have ultimately been executed.

What is backlog grooming?

Simply put, backlog grooming is a review process where new features and fixes are prioritized according to the product roadmap, so the development team has a clear, complete to-do list.

Part of the grooming process is determining which problems are not worth solving (at the moment), which ideas are not worth pursuing (at the moment), and then classifying all potential tasks accordingly.

Who’s involved?

Though officially conducted by a product owner or product manager, grooming actually involves many different roles. Product specs shouldn’t be written on the PMs own intuition. User stories shouldn’t be written in a vacuum. That’s because a product manager doesn’t have all the answers, and it’s not their job to have answers. 

Instead, it’s their job to ask the best questions, and surround themselves with those who have that insight. PMs should collaborate with different functional teams to get first-hand feedback. As a huge company culture and morale bonus, this opens the backlog up to other people.

That said, a product manager doesn’t have time to sit down and interview each person with an idea in the backlog.

ProdPad helps bring in new voices while making sure the PM doesn’t get overwhelmed. The collaborative part of the tool takes pressure off the PM to write all the specs themselves and lets other people pitch in. Each person with a suggestion can answer the key questions ⁠— such as “What problem would this solve?” and “What would be the value if it were solved?” ⁠— so that insight is captured in the moment.

Best practices for backlog grooming

  • Capture problems and ideas from a wide range of sources within the company. This could be feedback from customers or other functional teams, from C-level to entry level.
  • Record insights in the moment. Ideally there’s “self-serve” documentation by the person who has the original idea.
  • Write great product specs. If you spec well, then grooming and prioritizing will be easier! We’ve outlined a 5-step process for writing great product specs
  • Never spec alone. Ask the people involved what they think! Get their first-hand estimate about not only the potential benefit of the solution, but also the time/effort cost of creating the solution.
  • Regular grooming sessions. Find a review interval that makes sense for your team and your development cycles. 
  • Groom before every sprint meeting, to ensure all the top priority tickets are fully fleshed out and ready to go. Then the meeting can stay laser focused on the tasks at hand.
  • Archive, don’t delete. If one idea or solution is deemed a no-go, record why it’s not plausible and put it aside. This information could come in handy in the future. Plus, if product strategy or capacity changes, perhaps these old ideas will be relevant again!
  • Make your backlog visible to others. This is a big one. We’ll elaborate in the next section.

Why is backlog visibility important

These days a lot of companies boast transparency as a team value. Transparency is a combination of visibility and understanding.

Product backlogs can be a sensitive thing, because other team members have submitted problems, concerns, and solutions with the best intention of helping the company and your customers. In my experience, other teammates can get the impression that product management is a blackbox. Not seeing where their suggestions ended up was pretty painful.

If ideas are discarded or passed over, it’s helpful to document or display why. This not only shows appreciation for their input, but also creates more understanding across teams about the decision-making process and why certain solutions are prioritized.

Plus, when developers have visibility into the backlog, they can have a voice in what’s coming down the pipeline and begin each sprint with some familiarity of the tasks. No more “throwing it over the wall” and blindsiding the dev team!

Not only does ProdPad help product owners and managers actually groom the backlog and send tasks to dev, but it allows people to contribute, observe the grooming process, and stay in the loop on overall strategy. It helps everyone understand how the product roadmap — and their own ideas — are moving the company forward.

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