Product Backlog Management – 3 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Scaling Agile

Working with Agile teams requires a lot of discipline, and one of the things that can create challenges for the team and degrade performance is related to how the Product Backlog is managed. If you are fortunate to have a very engaged and skilled Product Owner, you are less likely to encounter these issues. However, for most Agile teams, even mature ones, often times the team’s effectiveness depends heavily on the performance of the Product Owner.

Let’s clarify one thing really quickly…The Product Owner is not necessarily the ONLY person who interacts with the Product Backlog. Some teams will engage others on the team, including the Scrum Master, to either add to or update the Product Backlog. How your team operates may depend on your team norms. Ultimately, the Product Owner is accountable for the quality of the Product Backlog, regardless of who has the ability to make changes to it.

To highlight the importance of the Product Backlog, there are many ways to mis-manage this critical artifact. Let’s take a look at some of the common errors that teams make.

Mistake #1 – Rely solely on the Product Owner to defined everything in the Product Backlog

The Product Owner is expected to be the person with the more intimate knowledge of the market, the user community and/or the customers. However, this person is usually extremely busy with several things at once, and is usually not all-knowing. Hence, my recommendation is for the entire Agile team to collaborate and support the Product Owner to ensure that the backlog items contain high-quality information that the team can use to build the solution.

Mistake #2 – Allow the Product Backlog to age

Just like some cheeses, the Product Backlog doesn’t age well. If the team allows the Product Backlog to become stale, meaning, become irrelevant and does not reflect the most current priorities, the ability for the team to deliver value would be severely hampered. This mistake can be avoided by scheduling regular backlog reviews (a.k.a. Backlog Refinement / Backlog Grooming) to ensure a high fidelity.

Mistake #3 – Allow everyone and anyone to add things to the Product Backlog

Unless your Product Owner is 100% dedicated to this project, it is usually not a good idea to open the Product Backlog to everyone because of the increased potential for low data quality. While it is great to encourage collaboration and participation from stakeholders and customers, as well as new ideas to emerge even late in the development, as stated in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, it may be more effective to encourage the participants to have a dialog with the Product Owner when new ideas or “desirements” are identified. An option to explore is to make sure the Product Owner is communicating with the customers and stakeholders regularly so that any new needs and priorities are being vetted prior to being entered into the Product Backlog.

To wrap up, the quality of the Product Backlog often directly impacts the ability for an Agile team to achieve the high level of performance that is expected of them. This means that it is very important for teams to find the right balance between rigor and flexibility when it comes to managing the backlog effectively.

Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai