What is a Backlog

A backlog is a list of tasks required to support a larger strategic plan. For example, a product development context contains a prioritized list of items. The product team agrees to work on these projects next. Typical items on a product backlog include user stories, changes to existing functionality, and bug fixes.

One key component that gives a backlog meaning is the prioritized items. Therefore, the items ranked highest on the list represent the team’s most important or urgent items to complete.

Why is it Important When Using Agile?

Agile’s primary strengths lie in rapidly delivering value to customers. Quick iterations and deployment of new functionality and enhancements keep the focus squarely on delighting customers. Moreover, this iteration helps achieve product priorities.

Sprint planning sessions rely on the backlog to scope, size, and slot development tasks and references. Furthermore, the development team will struggle to assess possible and create a reasonably confident schedule without these details captured in a single repository.

Consequently, product development teams may complete sprint tasks more quickly than expected. For example, particular projects may get unexpectedly put on hold or canceled. An accurate backlog allows the team to move swiftly. They can then focus on the following most essential items in the queue. The backlog prevents teams from idling. It gives them extra time on projects that aren’t a priority.

A view into the backlog can also provide a preview of what’s to come. It allows technical teams to begin thinking about how they might implement those items. Moreover, they can mitigate any conflicts, dependencies, or advanced work required. With a well-maintained backlog, the contents of any sprint will rarely be the first time the team has encountered the item and its requirements.

Why is the Backlog Important to Product Managers?

Product managers (PM) must focus on high-level objectives to solve problems for their target market. They spend a lot of their time on strategic initiatives such as conducting market research, studying their existing products’ usage data, and talking with their sales teams and customers. PMs then translate what they learn into a product roadmap, which is a high-level strategic plan.



But for PMs to successfully bring products to market, their plans and goals translate into task-level details and where the backlog comes in. It provides a prioritized list of actionable items for the team. 

With a backlog, product managers know their team always has a set of next-up tasks, which will keep the product’s development moving forward.

Keep learning how to connect your strategic roadmap to the backlog in the webinar below.

What is the Purpose of a Backlog?

A backlog can serve several essential functions for an organization.

1. Provide a single source of truth for the team’s planned work.

When a cross-functional team works from a product backlog, they know they never need to search for what to work on next or wonder which order they should prioritize their work. Instead, it represents an agreed-upon plan for the items the team should tackle next.

2. Facilitate team discussion.

Not every item on a product backlog is fully fleshed out and ready to work. Backlogs facilitate conversations among a cross-functional team. They help the team discuss how to prioritize work on a product. Moreover, they understand the interdependencies or conflicts an item might create, etc. Sometimes a couple will place things on a backlog—at the bottom, to indicate they are not yet priority tasks—as a springboard for further discussion.

3. Make it easier to assign work.

When a product team gets together to plan work for a specific upcoming period, a backlog makes assigning tasks to each person much more straightforward. Because the functions are already written down and ordered according to their priority level, the team can hand out the highest-priority items to the most appropriate members of the group.

For agile organizations, in particular, this is where a sprint backlog comes in.

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What is a Product Backlog?

The product backlog contains every potential item under consideration for a product. The backlog runs the gamut from minor tweaks to major additions. Some of these backlog items end up on the docket for upcoming sprints. While others remain in the queue until more immediate priorities arise. Lastly, the rest are left untouched. 

This universal repository contains every possibility for what the product may add or change in the future. New ideas get added as feedback from the market, and customers continually roll in through various channels.

What is Sprint Backlog?

Product teams that use the agile development framework divide their work into sprints. These are short development time blocks, usually, a couple of weeks or a month, during which the team works on a limited set of tasks.

When an agile product team gets together to plan the work for its next sprint, the output of this sprint planning meeting will be the sprint backlog. Then the group will pull the items from this sprint backlog from the more extensive, more comprehensive product backlog.
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Why Is It Important to Manage Your Backlog?

A backlog’s utility lies in the accuracy and volume of its contents and how that enables the product team to prioritize future work. It is the master repository of every valid request, idea, and possibility for the product, product extensions, or even entirely new offerings. 

Because they’re often used to capture every idea for product-related tasks, backlogs can quickly get unwieldy. They get treated like dumping grounds for anything not requiring immediate attention and an easy excuse for a stakeholder wondering what happened to their shiny object or pet project (“it’s in the backlog, we’ll get to it eventually”).

If the backlog grows too large or lacks any consistent, coherent organization, it can quickly shift from a valuable resource to an unsalvageable mess. Great ideas, key customer requests, and crucial technical debt issues carry equal weight. With random items, no one will ever actually prioritize development and fragmented thoughts so inarticulate the team can’t even remember why they’re in there. The excellent repository becomes a giant junk drawer no one can make sense of or has the time and motivation for either.

Refining backlogs with tagging

Product managers need a simple way to sort, sift, and make good use of their content to keep backlogs functional even as they swell with more and more ideas. One way to maintain order in the face of chaos is to implement a structured system for tagging, categorizing, and organizing the data.

Suppose each backlog item gets tagged with its associated themes, strategic goals and objectives, critical functional areas of the product, and specific customers or verticals. In that case, product managers now have the tools to organize better and group related backlog items together for prioritization purposes. 

For example, suppose a theme for a coming sprint is simplifying the checkout process. In that case, a refined backlog allows the product team to quickly find any related backlog items to consider for prioritization and facilitates development’s ability to explore related articles during the sprint instead of finding themselves in a product backlog, black hole.

What is Backlog Grooming?

One best practice is to conduct regular backlog grooming sessions. Then, when they pull together the cross-functional team for backlog grooming, product managers can:

  • Review the items and discuss how the items at the top support the company’s current strategic objectives.
  • Break down complex tasks into smaller, more actionable ones.
  • Discuss items on the list and clarify any issues or questions the team has about them.
  • Ensure user stories or other tasks at the top of the list meet the team’s definition of “ready.”
  • Help keep it organized, up-to-date, and healthy.
  • Excise items that no longer match the latest product and business strategy

In addition to these tactical benefits, you can hold periodic grooming sessions. Grooming sessions are an excellent opportunity to bring the entire cross-functional team together to ensure everyone is working toward a standard set of strategic goals. When you have an anchor document to facilitate these cross-functional alignment discussions, it is yet another reason that every product team should develop and maintain a backlog. We’ve outlined backlog grooming even further in this video below.

What is the Relationship Between Backlogs and Roadmaps?

In short, backlogs represent everything the team could build, while roadmaps indicate what the organization has prioritized. That said, a theme-based visual roadmap is not just a list of backlog items slated for each upcoming release.

When done well, the roadmap lays out the relative prioritization and timing of key strategic themes. The roadmap’s high-level view does not list specific and detailed items of an individual backlog item.

Instead, the product team must first agree upon a roadmap. Once the team chooses the roadmap, the backlog serves as a source for specific development items. The tasks are most beneficial to achieving the objectives and goals of each theme. The product team may consider related backlog items for individual sprints and more significant epics. Product teams should schedule the highest-ranked things first. 

With a purpose-built roadmap tool, individual backlog items link with the more prominent themes in the roadmap. The backlog gets itself when stakeholders drill down into the details of each piece. The roadmap provides context for the prioritized backlog items within the larger strategic objectives and timeline of the overall product roadmap. 

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