5 Signs Your Product Backlog is a Black Hole (and What to Do About it)

What is a product backlog for?

In an ideal situation, your product backlog will be a lean, organized, and prioritized list of the things your team needs to do next. It could include product features, stories, tasks, bug fixes, and any other product-related items that need handling. In other words, your backlog should function as a well-ordered to-do list of important product action items.

But the key — remember, we’re still talking ideal situation here — is that every item on the backlog is clear and easy to understand. Items should earn their place on the list, be slated for near-term action, and be prioritized appropriately in relation to other items. And just as important, nothing should be on the backlog that doesn’t belong there.

Okay, that’s the ideal situation. Let’s talk about your backlog. If it’s like most, your backlog probably looks more like a free-for-all list — a long, ever-expanding and unorganized document capturing every thought anyone on your team has ever had about your product. Good ideas. Lousy ideas. Low-priority tasks. High-priority tasks. Super-burning-hot crisis-management fixes. Brainstorms for other products. A grocery list? (Well, that was probably a copy-paste accident.)

And because the list becomes so long, so difficult even to look at, you lose track of which items are a high priority. You have a more difficult time finding the right items to place into your next sprints or longer-term development cycles.

In fact, unlike the ideal scenario in which every backlog item is all but guaranteed to see some near-term action, the items on your backlog are just as likely to disappear and never be heard from again.

Here are 5 ways to know if your backlog is a black hole — and what to do about it.

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1. You hide it when company comes over.

We don’t mean this literally, of course, but the sentiment is the same: Your product backlog is so daunting that you don’t want to show it to your developers in meetings, discuss it with colleagues or, frankly, even think about it.

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If you hide it when company comes over, your backlog is too long. #ProdMgmtProblems

One of the easiest ways to spot a black-hole backlog is that the list is way too long. Managing this type of backlog is a bit similar to hoarding. You’re afraid to let go of any idea or thought relating to your product, but you haven’t set up alternate lists or idea-capturing tools. You use your backlog as a catch-all document because you don’t have any other place to put those longer-term or lower-priority ideas.

What happens, though, is that the backlog itself becomes useless. Like a hoarder sifting through a room filled floor to ceiling with boxes and trying to find the box labeled “half-length orange string,” you can’t quickly distinguish the important and relevant items from the unimportant and irrelevant. You simply have to sift through everything every time. Your backlog is just a large, jumbled mess of uncategorized and unordered ideas.

No wonder you hide it when company comes over!

What to do about it:
Sometimes the best strategy for cleaning up an unmanageable backlog is to take the scorched-earth approach.

Set yourself a rule, such as: If an item is more than a year old, and it’s not a high-priority, close it. Assuming you’re using a project management platform like JIRA to manage your backlog, closing an item means you won’t have to fully and permanently delete it, (you can still honor your inner hoarder), but it won’t show up on the list as you view it.

Like decluttering a home, you’ll need to be ruthless here.

2. You’re afraid to put good ideas on it.

This is a perfectly logical concern because, well… it’s a black hole!

As a product manager, you’re certainly no stranger to great ideas for your product. You have them. Your customers have them. Your marketing or sales folks have them. But not every good idea can be implemented right away — so you do need a place to capture and store ideas that are worthy but need to be shelved for the time being.

And for two very important reasons, you can’t afford for that place to be the backlog.

First, adding longer-term ideas to your backlog will only make the list longer, less organized, and more difficult to sift through to find the high-priority stuff.

Second, because these worthy ideas will end up on an ever-growing list of other items relating to your product, you’ll actually be increasing the chances that these valid ideas will simply be buried forever.

What to do about it:
The best way to ensure your great product ideas don’t end up spaghettified (a great black-hole term, by the way) and gone forever is to never put them in your backlog in the first place.

Instead, create another platform to house your great ideas — perhaps a brainstorm page on your company’s wiki, where people can contribute their product ideas and you can always easily find them.

3. You keep needing to tag your priority items with stronger-sounding status categories — like “Super-Mega-Ultra Urgent” — to ensure you see them.

Perhaps as you read the previous section just now you thought, But my backlog doesn’t have to be a jumbled list where I can’t distinguish the important from the unimportant. I can tag my items with higher and lower priority levels, and filter the view that way.

That’s true. But another very common symptom of unmanageable backlogs is that everyone learns to tag everything they add with the equivalent urgency of the Armed Forces’ DEFCON 1.

So here’s another great shorthand way of determining whether your backlog is working efficiently or not: If you know that placing an item on it marked “Priority Level 2” means the item will never get dealt with, your backlog is a black hole.

This is why, when your development team asks you to order your tasks by priority, you quickly end up with seven items tagged “Priority 1.”

And of course, this leads to a vicious cycle, where everyone learns to default to putting Priority 1 Ultra-Mega FIRST on their items — because they know that tagging anything with Priority 1 Ultra-Mega SECOND means it’ll languish on that backlog list forever.

Indeed, this all by itself can become the true sign that your backlog is a black hole: You do only those tasks marked Urgent or Priority 1.

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You know it’s time to trim your backlog when you start tagging things “Super-Mega-Urgent PRIORITY ONE.” #ProdMgmtProblems

What to do about it:
When you find yourself needing to continually heighten the levels of urgency on your list, that means either that you need a better prioritization system, or that your backlog is simply too long — or both.

But whatever the reason, the smart course of action is the same: You’ve got to prune that list.
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4. You don’t know what half of the items on the list even mean.

If your organization is like most, just about anyone can add an item to your backlog. When things are manageable, this process is fine.

But what if a QA tester adds an item to your backlog that reads something like this: “Sporadic blockage of internal transmission messages detected.”

Huh? you wonder as you read this new backlog entry. What in the world does that mean? Is it important? Will it affect the customer experience?

Now, if your backlog is manageable — only a few items, all well-organized — you’ll catch this little outlier quickly and be able to deal with it. (Starting by asking the QA person: “Huh?”) Because you keep your backlog lean, a potentially serious item like this won’t sit unattended forever.

But if the backlog is already way too long, adding yet another item all but guarantees the new item will be buried for a good amount of time before you catch it. And even then you won’t be sure whether or not it’s a priority, because you won’t know what it means.

What to do about it:
Set a new rule for anyone placing items in your backlog. Demand a plain-language explanation of the issue, feature, or defect. No developer-speak. No QA-speak. No court-reporter-style shorthand notation. Every item included on your backlog must be written in a way that is both understandable and actionable by the product owner.

And don’t forget: This rule should apply to you as well. Why? Because if your backlog is a black hole, that almost certainly means there are items on it that are many months or even several years old. If you aren’t clear in your description of an item you include on the list, what are the odds that you’ll remember what you meant 18 months from now?

5. Just catching a glimpse of it makes you hyperventilate.

In his time-management book Getting Things Done, author David Allen describes how profoundly something as simple as a cluttered garage can affect us. Just walking by the garage door can sap a little of our energy, boost our stress level, and negatively impact our mood.

That’s because when we have an overwhelming task in the back of our minds — say, a 10-zillion-item backlog, for example — there is a part of our brain that is continuously spending resources thinking about it and the fact that we are failing to complete it. It’s understandable why that can add to our stress and wreck our mood.

This is yet another reason it’s so important to keep your backlog lean, organized, and manageable. If you let it get out of hand, it can work on you behind the scenes, constantly undermining your productivity and enthusiasm — even when you’re not consciously thinking about it.

What to do about it:
The best advice here is similar to the suggestion we offered in the first section: Roll up your sleeves, dig into your backlog, and radically overhaul it. Oh, and set up some new rules while you’re at it — to make sure it never balloons to “hoarder” size again.

Great ideas for the overhaul come from Allen’s Getting Things Done book. For example, review all of the items on the list and purge everything that doesn’t belong there. Again, this can simply mean “closing” an item — not deleting it completely, but removing it from the standard view you see every time you look at your backlog.

Next, apply the two-minute rule. If you can deal with an item within two minutes (or whatever timeframe makes sense to you), deal with it now. That could mean adding the item to an upcoming sprint, closing it or even fully deleting it.

Then, with your remaining items — and if you’ve handled the other steps aggressively, your list should now be looking pretty manageable — start applying priorities, sequencing and otherwise organizing them.

This final step should leave you with a well-ordered, organized and lean product backlog — one that looks a lot like the “ideal scenario” backlog we talked about in the introduction.

And that means you’re now on your way to more productive energy, faster backlog reviews, and ultimately a more successful product.