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5 backlog refinement strategies to try before your next sprint

Backlog refinement is the process of managing and prioritizing items in your product backlog. Learn how to keep your backlog clean and speed up deliveries.

Apr 22, 2024 • 8 Minute Read

image depicting a triangle with post-it notes being placed to indicate backlog items
  • Software Delivery Process

Dev frameworks with continual delivery, like Scrum and Agile, rely on teams quickly adjusting to new tasks between dev cycles. That said, you can’t hit the ground running without some preparation, so engineering managers should prepare their team for an upcoming sprint with backlog refinement.

Backlog refinement involves managers, product owners, and stakeholders reviewing items in your backlog. Editing your backlog helps keep devs focused on the most important tasks and helps managers prioritize features and products. Here, we’ll explain the backlog refinement process and tips for improving.

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement is the process of managing and prioritizing items in your product backlog. Product owners, managers, and teams review items and tasks in the product backlog together in what is called a backlog refinement meeting. Agile and Scrum teams use this process to facilitate fast-paced dev cycles. By organizing tasks in advance, teams can hit the ground running when their next sprint begins.

Product backlog refinement ensures all items are relevant, prioritized, and ready for delivery. It involves activities like:

  • Story points should reflect the effort required to deliver an item in comparison to others in your backlog

  • Prioritizing tickets based on current goals

  • Asking stakeholders for information about tickets

  • Clarifying ticket requirements with in-depth user stories

  • Combining related or duplicated tickets

Backlog grooming vs. refinement

Backlog refinement and backlog grooming are two names for the same process. Because of negative connotations, backlog grooming has fallen out of favor. 

Backlog refinement vs. sprint planning

Backlog refinement occurs before sprint planning. Backlog refinement first reorders and prioritizes all your tasks in the backlog. During a sprint planning meeting, you go through the revised backlog and pick items to work on. So, backlog refinement creates the backlog that sprint planning meetings go on to use. 

Benefits of backlog refinement

Backlog refinement keeps tasks in your backlog detailed and well prioritized. It also gives teams a chance to understand each project and its objective. Since backlogs aren’t static documents, they should be ever-changing to reflect new priorities, prioritize business value, and reduce the complexity of each task. With an accurate backlog, your teams get a clear picture of scope and understand why each task is valuable.  

Backlog refinement also makes sprint planning easier. Maintaining your backlog helps Scrum and Agile teams ensure high-value tasks are prioritized in each sprint. This means that teams are ready to jump in at the beginning of a sprint with a clear list of high-priority stories that are ready for scheduling. Other benefits of backlog refinement include: 

  • Aligns Scrum teams and stakeholders

  • Improves sprint planning efficiency by clarifying tasks early

  • Refines the product backlog to include relevant, focused tasks

  • Encourages collaboration when writing user stories

  • Keeps tickets from piling up in the backlog

  • Highlights tickets with the greatest business value

Tips for effective backlog refinement meetings

In general, effective backlog meetings are short, led by product owners or managers, and limited to items that will come up in the next sprint. Because sprints are only two to three weeks, you won’t have much time to refine your backlog before sprint planning. Make the most of each backlog refinement meeting by following these tips. 

Outline your activities for backlog refinement

In your agenda, let your team know what they’re walking into. With more preparation, devs can come in with questions and priorities in mind. You can also ask everyone to review the backlog before your meeting. 

Scrum Masters and other meeting leaders may want to give attendees a heads up before:

  • Writing new user stories and prioritizing them to meet emerging needs 

  • Removing outdated user stories 

  • Sizing and resizing items based on dev resources

  • Improving project clarity by fleshing out implementation details

Strive for a DEEP product backlog

Not all product backlogs are created equal, but you can optimize yours with the right priorities and organization. Roman Pichler, a product management expert, recommends DEEP backlogs, which are: 

  • Detailed: Every backlog item needs enough detail to build a user story. At a glance, devs need enough context to complete their tasks. 
  • Emergent: Product backlogs improve and evolve as needs change. Let go of the impulse to keep your backlog static. 
  • Estimated: Backlog items should include an estimate of the effort needed to finish a task. Generally, Agile teams measure effort in the time a task takes to complete.
  • Prioritized: Organized backlogs list tasks in order of priority. Put tasks heavily related to your upcoming sprint at the top of the list.

Create a definition of ready

A definition of ready outlines what a user story needs to include before you accept it for implementation in a sprint. A good definition bases all user stories around a consistent baseline. Your definition of done describes what a user story needs to include in terms of: 

  • The business value or potential revenue from the user story

  • An estimate of the time and resources needed to finish it

  • The objectives it helps users meet or the pain points it resolves

Keep your meetings short

Always try to keep your backlog meetings short and streamlined. To do that, only block out one hour for your meeting. If you can't fit every agenda item into the discussion, you can push some items to the sprint planning meeting. 

Decide who attends backlog refinement meetings

Generally, product owners, Scrum Masters, and their teams attend backlog refinement meetings. In some cases, stakeholders appear to offer input. To streamline your meetings, consider limiting attendance to teams and stakeholders working on backlog items in the next sprint.

Manage your dependencies

Dependencies are relationships between tasks or elements of a program that must be completed in a sequential order.  So, make sure your backlog organization reflects how tasks build on each other and prioritize them accordingly. That way, your team flows from task to task without running into roadblocks. 

Example backlog refinement meeting agenda

To help walk you through what a backlog refinement meeting looks like, here’s a sample agenda:

Backlog refinement agenda for 11/13/23

  • Time: 1 p.m. PST

  • Location: Remote

  • Scrum Master: Mark Underhill

  • Stakeholders: None

  • Product owner: Jess Branford

  1. Strategy review: Asses business objectives and how this project helps us reach them. 

  2. Team updates and market changes: Address changes to user needs or expected features. Share internal updates on past fixes or new functions in the pipeline. 

  3. Discuss user stories: Review the user story for each item. Describe how you’ll meet acceptance criteria for each story. Estimate how much work and time will go into each one. 

  4. Unfinished tasks: Go over tasks left incomplete during the last sprint. Explain why they weren’t completed and decide if they will carry into the next sprint. 

  5. Upcoming tasks: Add tasks to the upcoming sprint and prioritize them by importance. 

  6. Address risks: Discuss any risks, scoping issues, or security threats related to upcoming tasks. Suggest safeguards and plans for any issues. 

  7. Backlog cleaning: Remove outdated or unnecessary tasks from the backlog. Split large tasks into smaller ones you can finish in a sprint. 

  8. Market changes: Discuss competitor strategy and other brands to keep an eye on. Note fluctuations in the market and user expectations. 

  9. Q&A: Allow a few minutes for team members to ask questions. 

Try our backlog refinement meeting agenda template to loop your teams in before a meeting.

Backlog refinement FAQ

Still have questions about Scrum backlogs and the purpose of backlog refinement? We’ve answered a few frequently asked questions about the refinement process below. 

When is the best time for backlog refinement?

You should review your backlog after your last sprint’s review and before your next sprint planning meeting. Some teams work backlog refinement into their sprint retrospective. That said, many teams hold off until they've compiled software KPIs from the last dev cycle.

Who is in charge of backlog refinement?

Typically, product owners and managers take point on backlog refinement and work with their teams to find the right workflow processes. They can also delegate prioritization to senior developers. 

Which development frameworks require backlog refinement?

Scrum and Scaled Professional Scrum require backlog refinement, but other frameworks use it, too. For example, many Agile teams make time for backlog refinement. If your framework involves sprints and sprint planning, assume a process like Scrum backlog refinement plays a role. 

Track your backlog improvements with Flow

Backlog refinement is an invaluable tool for managers to keep their teams focused and productive. Whether you’re trying to find high-value tasks or improve alignment, a backlog meeting can help. With enough practice, you can strike the perfect balance of planning and daily standups to keep teams productive throughout development.

Once you’ve set your goals, you need a tool to ensure you can meet them. Flow’s Sprint Movement Report provides a visual analysis of your team’s completion and scope-added percentages over the course of a sprint. Schedule a demo today and see how Flow can help improve your sprints cycle over cycle.

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