3 Warning Signs That Your Backlog Refinement Is Failing, and 3 Ideas to Fix It

Backlog Refinement, or commonly known as “Backlog Grooming”, is an essential activity that many Scrum teams fail to execute consistently due to the perceived “overhead”. Also, some teams choose to ignore this practice simply because the Scrum Guide does not make this a core event; even as a “recommended” event, the Backlog Refinement meeting is a critical activity that your team must consider executing on a regular basis.

Even if your team does implement this practice on a regular cadence, there’s a chance that it is not as effective as it could be. I have compiled a few potential issues to watch out for in case you may be encountering them unknowingly.

Warning Sign #1 – Work items lack appropriate level of detail

If your team consistently fails to complete planned work during a Sprint, it is very possible that the backlog items may not include a sufficient level of detail. For example, your work items may not be written in the proper format (i.e. not using the form “As a….I would like to…so that I can…”. Also, it is possible that the Acceptance Criteria may lack proper detail or be missing completely. All of these scenarios can lead to poor team performance. Why does this happen? One common root cause is ineffective (or absent) Backlog Refinement meetings. If the team does not invest time to craft high-quality backlog items, it will lead to negative results very quickly.

One possible solution to consider is to be diligent about iterating when writing your stories. Don’t assume that the very first draft is “good enough”. Take at least two attempts to craft the story and ensure sufficient information has been conveyed.

Warning Sign #2 – Product Owner does not share long-term vision

Why is your Backlog Refinement not working? Another reason that may contribute to poor performance is the lack of a product vision (a.k.a. “Product Goal” in the latest revision of the Scrum Guide). Having an insight into the Product Goal enables the team to create the right stories that support the goal. Without the goal, the team will likely produce work items of low value. If this is the case, consult the Product Owner and work with him/her to define a tangible Product Goal that will help the team rally their efforts.

Warning Sign #3 – Work items are consistently too large to be executed within a single sprint

If your team consistently encounters stories/work items that are too large, this means that the team did not invest sufficient effort to refine the work items during Backlog Refinement. Injecting a collection of large units of work into a Sprint is inviting failure since work is typically more complex or more labor-intensive than we predict. The Backlog Refinement meeting is designed for the team to adjust the scope and size of work so that the team has a higher chance of completing them during a single sprint.

One technique to consider is to make a general rule to have no more than 1 story that is the maximum size for each sprint (i.e. 13 or 21 points). If there are more than 1, take time to break this up into smaller pieces if possible. If decomposition is not possible, swap out this story with smaller ones, even if they are less critical. This approach should improve the team output in the long run.

In summary, if you sense that your Backlog Refinement meetings are not adding value to your team, take a look at these three common warning signs so that you can decide how to remediate this situation. As usual, engage the whole team, including the Product Owner, and explore possible adjustments. Keep in mind that the customer is relying on you to deliver on their objectives, so any improvement, however small, could make a tremendous difference!

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai