Backlog Refinement Definition

Backlog Refinement is a part of the Scrum framework. It is an ongoing process where the Product Owner and the Development Team collaborate and ensure that items on the Product Backlog are understood the same way by all members of the team, items have estimates, and they are ordered by priority in terms of business value and required effort. Backlog refinement is also called backlog grooming, but these days, almost no one uses the term backlog grooming as “grooming” has become a dirty word.

The purpose of backlog refinement is to make sure that the backlog is filled with items that are relevant and detailed. The items must include estimations appropriate to their priority for the sprint. The benefits of backlog refinement are that teams can close gaps in their understanding of the items and become closely aligned on the work. This leads to a shared understanding of the work and encourages communication and dialogue within the team.

The activities that are included in backlog refinement are product discovery, removing irrelevant items, adding details to the items, splitting large items into smaller ones, sizing and resizing items, prioritizing and reprioritizing items, and identifying risks for items close to implementation.

What Is the Purpose of Backlog Refinement?

Backlog refinement is about creating a shared understanding of what the product will do and what the product won’t do. The purpose of product backlog refinement is to ensure that the backlog remains filled with relevant, detailed, and estimated tasks to such a degree that is appropriate with task priority. The backlog refinement aims to keep up with the current understanding of the product or the project objectives. 

The backlog refinement practice is widely used in the software development field and in projects and products that use the Scrum framework as a way to develop and manage them. There is no one size fits all method of conducting a backlog refinement. Some Product Owners report that they prefer to do it three to five days before the end of a sprint, and some prefer to do shorter meetings every week.

What Are the Benefits of Backlog Refinement?

The benefits of conducting block refinement are listed below.

  • Backlog refinement improves the efficiency of the sprint planning meeting because the majority of questions have already been answered.
  • It exposes hidden complexity.
  • It keeps the product backlog focused, relevant, and clean, so you don’t feel like drowning in a growing tasks list.
  • Teams can close gaps in their understanding of the stories and become closely aligned with the work.
  • It leverages the benefits of collaboration in detailing user stories and defects.
  • It reveals dependencies.
  • It creates a shared understanding within the scrum team and its stakeholders.

How to Perform a Backlog Refinement?

Performing product backlog refinement helps your team get the product backlog ready for the next sprint. You can successfully conduct backlog refinement in five steps.

1. Analyze the Data. Product backlog refinement starts by analyzing the data and feedback collected from target users and customers. It’s important to focus on the data that is relevant to understand if you are building the right features with the right technology and UX. This is the step, where based on the feedback, you have to decide if you are improving and enhancing the product your team is building.

2. Incorporate the Findings. Once you have analyzed the feedback and the data, you have to incorporate the findings into the product backlog.

3. Decide what’s Next. In this step, you have to decide what to do next and define the goal for the next sprint. You have to be clear with the purpose of the next sprint and what has to be prioritized to achieve that purpose.

4. Refine the Backlog Tasks. In this step, you have to break larger items into smaller ones. For example, break epics into user stories. Further, prioritize and reorder the tasks according to their significance for hitting the sprint goal.

5. Prepare the High Priority Items. Before starting the next sprint, make sure that the stories are clear, testable, and feasible. If necessary, resolve dependencies between teams that work on the same project. After completing the final step, you can start pulling tasks onto the sprint backlog or the Kanban board.

What Are the Best Practices and Tips for Backlog Refinement?

Some of the backlog refinement best practices and tips teams should follow are:

  • Backlog refinement shouldn’t consume more than 10% of the development team’s capacity.
  • User stories that no longer appear relevant should be descoped.
  • Re-prioritize the stories for the next iteration.
  • In light of newly discovered information, estimates should be corrected.
  • If necessary, ask more experienced team members to provide estimates.
  • Don’t excessively detail backlog items.
  • Avoid disagreements on estimates.

What should be included in the Backlog Refinement Checklist?

While goals are nice to have, you need to carry out specific actions to achieve them. To evaluate if a backlog needs refinement, you can use this checklist and regularly go through it. If the answer to all the questions below is “no,” then you can say that your backlog is refined.

  • Does the backlog contain items that no longer make sense?
  • Is there any user need that isn’t yet in an appropriate form of backlog item?
  • Are there any items at the bottom of your backlog which your customers expect you to implement urgently?
  • Since the last time you looked at your backlog, is there any item with changed delivery importance?
  • Do all of the items on your backlog have agile estimates?
  • Is there any item with an outdated estimate?
  • Is there any item on your backlog that is too broad to understand the description so that your team should know what to implement in the next sprint?

When Is the Best Time for Backlog Refinement?

As backlog refinement is an ongoing activity, there is no such thing as the best time for backlog refinement. The Product Owner, Scrum Master, and the team can refine items on the backlog at any time, in or outside a meeting.

What Are the Activities in Backlog Refinement?

Backlog refinement is about creating an understanding among the entire team of what the Product will do, what it won’t do, and what it takes to create it.

The activities in backlog refinement are listed below.

  • Product discovery.
  • Removing items that are no longer relevant.
  • Preventing misunderstanding by adding details to the items and improving clarity.
  • Splitting large items into smaller ones, as smaller tasks are easier to work on and finish fast.
  • Sizing items and resizing items.
  • Prioritizing and re-prioritizing items.
  • Identifying obstacles and risks for items close to implementation.

How Long should Backlog Refinement Take?

There is no guideline on how much time a backlog refinement should take. The only thing that is specified is that it shouldn’t take more than 10% of the development team’s capacity.

What Are Backlog Refinement Meetings?

The backlog refinement meeting is held at the end of each sprint to make sure that the backlog is ready for the next sprint. The product backlog refinement aims to keep the backlog orderly and clean. During a backlog refinement meeting, the Product Owner and the team discuss the top tasks on the product backlog. This is the team’s chance to ask the most important questions that arise during sprint planning. The Product Owner doesn’t necessarily need to fully resolve all the questions during a backlog refinement meeting. The backlog refinement meeting is a checkpoint rather than an effort to resolve issues fully.

When Is the Best Time for a Backlog Refinement Meeting?

There is no best time for a backlog refinement meeting, as backlog refinement should be considered as an ongoing activity. Some teams prefer a backlog refinement meeting a few days before the end of a sprint, others prefer to do it at the beginning of the new sprint. A third group prefers to do backlog refinement meetings mid-iteration and alternate the sprint planning meetings with the backlog refinement meetings.

Who Attends a Backlog Refinement Meeting?

The Product Owner always attends backlog refinement meetings. The rest of the attendees depend on items that are up for refinement.

Potential attendees of backlog refinement are

  • The development team.
  • Member of the QA team, if you have such a team.
  • Representatives from Customer Support or Customer Success.
  • Other stakeholders related to the product.
  • Scrum Master.
Who Facilitates Backlog Refinement Meetings?

Usually, the Product Owner facilitates the backlog refinement meetings. However, since the Product Owner has a high stake in the outcome and direction of the discussion, it is better if the Scrum Master facilitates these meetings. The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization. As such, the Scrum Master has no official role in the meeting and can be more objective.

What Is the Relationship Between Backlog Refinement and Scrum?

Scrum is a highly prescriptive framework compared to Kanban. Scrum requires detailed and restrictive planning, has predefined processes and roles. The Scrum framework is based on three pillars – transparency, inspection, and adaptation. In Scrum, the work is divided into smaller tasks that must be completed in a predefined period of time (sprint). Adding new items during a sprint is strongly discouraged, which delays new work and reduces team flexibility.

Backlog Refinement is a part of the Scrum framework and ensures that items on the Product Backlog are understood the same way by all team members, items have estimates, and they are ordered by priority in terms of business value and required effort.

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