Backlog Refinement: The Ultimate Guide

Author headshot for CareerFoundry blog contributor Kinzal Jalan.

If you’ve lurked around product management forums and related digital spaces, you may have encountered the term “backlog refinement.”

Contrary to what it sounds like, a product backlog isn’t a list of delays. Instead, in agile methodologies, a product backlog is a prioritized list of tasks that eventually help complete the project successfully. 

Product backlogs are dynamic, and evolve continuously based on changing feedback and requirements. They’re put together to understand the changing requirements of end-users and the product owner. Hence, they need to be refined and managed by key individuals to ensure that all the tasks align with evolving goals. 

In this article, we’ll look closely at backlog refinement and how scrum masters and product managers can implement it for additional productivity and efficiency. Read on to learn more about:

  1. What is backlog refinement?
  2. Why is backlog refinement significant to product management?
  3. How to implement backlog refinement?
  4. Common backlog refinement FAQs

1. What is backlog refinement?

Product backlog refinement is the process of organizing various product development tasks to prioritize the most critical ones. During each sprint, product owners and scrum masters identify items to add to the backlog. As a result, the list of tasks on the backlog increases or decreases based on the outcome of the iterations. 

Please bear in mind that any product backlog item (PBI) is a single task that is small enough to be completed during a particular sprint (which lasts for a month or less). PBIs can be further broken down into user stories, which are simple descriptions of what the end users might want to do with a product when it’s ready. 

Although 70% of PBIs take 20 days or less to be completed, some items may take as many as 267 days. Moreover, some tasks may no longer be relevant or need to be broken down into smaller tasks. Irrespective, the idea behind them is to manage sprint cycles and deliver products on time without hurdles. 

Backlog refinement vs. backlog grooming: What’s the difference?

Initially, backlog refinement was known as backlog grooming. It was a metaphor for how a gardener trims plants to make them look tidy and manageable. 

However, as “grooming” carries negative connotations, it’s no longer preferred terminology. Hence, we now commonly use “backlog refinement.” The terms mean the same, and there are no differences in either structure or process. 

Now let’s move over to understanding why backlog refinement is an essential step.

2. Why is backlog refinement significant to product management?

Backlog refinement is critical to successful product completion. Here are some of the key reasons why you must create product backlogs:

Identify any issues with the product

Backlog refinement helps you identify loopholes within the existing system to make the necessary changes to future sprint cycles. 

This eliminates possible issues with the product and ensures efficient use of time and resources. 

Plan sprints in a manageable manner

As product development is a lengthy process, tickets can accumulate or become irrelevant. Backlog refinement helps to ensure that more prominent tickets are divided into smaller, more manageable tasks while irrelevant ones are removed. This speeds up the process and aids in completion. 

Enhance productivity

When unnecessary tickets are removed, and difficult tickets are broken down into manageable ones, your development team is better equipped to deliver results efficiently at the end of each sprint cycle.

Ensure clear communication

When each issue is identified and added to the backlog, there are fewer chances of disagreements between various stakeholders. These can include the development team, product owner and product manager, the client, and the end-users. This also ensures smoother and speedier product completion.

Now, let’s move over to understanding how you can implement it.

A product manager stands at a whiteboard leading their team in backlog refinement planning.

3. How to implement backlog refinement

To begin with, there first needs to be clarity on who will refine the backlog. Usually, the product owner (a Scrum-based term for the one responsible for product development) manages and refines the backlog. 

However, sometimes, the scrum master may also need to bear the responsibility. The answer to this depends on the situation and who understands the nitty-gritty of refining complex backlog items. 

The next step is to get down to business and map out prioritized items or user stories hierarchy. You can generate this list after multiple item iterations and daily scrum meetings during the sprint. 

With that, let’s go over some of the tasks that are central to implementing backlog refinement:

  • Identifying sprint goals and aligning them with existing tickets and user stories
  • Prioritizing tickets in a way that there is clarity about the project
  • Adding details to user stories to ensure more transparency regarding vague tickets
  • Eliminating or merging repetitive tickets or user stories
  • Liaising with stakeholders to understand each ticket comprehensively
  • Classifying similar tickets under a single task
  • Dividing larger tasks into smaller ones, especially if they contain complex tickets
  • Defining the readiness of each task and setting its acceptance criteria
  • Planning the approach to work on each task during succeeding sprints

Although the process may sound clear-cut, you must remember to follow the correct set of techniques and best practices. Let’s look at what they are:

Backlog refinement techniques

1. Create a comprehensive product backlog

According to product training expert Roman Pichler, you first create a D.E.E.P. product catalog. This is an acronym for a product backlog that is: 

  • Detailed
  • Emergent (that which constantly evolves)
  • Estimated (time, cost, and effort-related estimations)
  • Prioritized (in terms of importance)

A DEEP product catalog is essential because it eliminates the ambiguity of items and helps you gain clarity. 

2. Identify task dependencies 

Most product development tasks are complex. They require multiple people to put in their efforts for the ideal result. 

Moreover, task dependencies also exist, where the completion of one impacts the other. So, if you don’t identify the different individuals for the various aspects at the right time, you may face problems during each sprint. 

For example, an application’s updated version can be released only when the design team works on UX/UI issues. 

3. Synchronize your backlog refinement meetings

This should be easy as long as you’re following an agile methodology such as Scrum. 

As scrum-based product management divides product development into sprint cycles consisting of daily scrum meetings, there’ll be a smooth problem identification and issue resolution process. 

Now, let’s explore best practices.

What are the backlog refinement best practices?

According to the Official Scrum Guide, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

1. Gain insights from various sources 

Several unknown variables can affect your development goals in product development. Hence, make it a point to gain insights from various sources.

Don’t limit yourself to either the client or the end user. Instead, use various data sources such as competitor analysis, market trends, feedback from the development team, and even insights from the sales and marketing teams. 

2. Regularly refine the product backlog 

Know when to order the product backlog. Ideally, this should be an ongoing strategy and not reserved for fixed, one-off dates. 

3. Estimating product backlog items 

Estimate the time your teams may require to complete each task. Having a rough estimate regarding long-term items is OK, but you should at least have a precise time estimation for short-term items. 

This works well as backlog refinement aims to break down long-term items into smaller ones that can be completed in realistic time frames.

4. Breaking down these items 

Always break down more significant user stories and tickets into smaller, more manageable ones. 

5. Aim to minimize dependencies 

You cannot predict task dependencies if you outsource or rely on external vendors for task completion. So, make sure that you have enough leeway or eliminate these.

Finally, let’s go over some tools you can use to put these suggested techniques and best practices into action more easily

Handy tools for smoother backlog refinement:

  • Trello – Useful for tracking projects and maintaining user stories
  • PlanItPoker – Helps to quickly break down user stories and other items into smaller chunks. It also offers powerful visualization tools to understand which items you should prioritize. 
  • Jira – One of the best-known project management tools, Jira is helpful for planning, developing, and reporting user stories. 
  • Yodiz – This is another affordable project management software tool you can use to develop user stories and refine them further. 
  • Pivotal Tracker – This is great for viewing all the pending tasks on a single interface and understanding who is working on what to break down tasks into manageable chunks. 
  • Asana – Another industry heavyweight, this tool is excellent for assigning tasks to individuals and teams while keeping track of different tasks’ statuses. 
  • – You can use this to automate task assignments and help teams to track the assignments they are responsible for. 

4. Backlog refinement FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions regarding backlog refinement.

What is one key benefit of a backlog refinement session?

Backlog refinement helps your team to identify problems in your product management workflow and enables you to fix them by identifying the what, where, when, and who. In addition, it creates a robust roadmap for future sprint cycles.

How long does backlog refinement take?

One of the principles of backlog refinement is that it’s an ongoing process. While you can allocate anywhere between 60 to 90 minutes for individual meetings, remember that you must continuously refine your backlog. It makes sense to use a tool to assist you better. 

What is backlog refinement vs. sprint planning?

Backlog refinement identifies user stories and tickets that can be broken down into manageable chunks or eliminated. Sprint planning sets the agenda for each sprint cycle, which can last for many weeks. Each sprint cycle consists of actionable tasks identified during previous backlog refinement sessions. 

Who facilitates backlog refinement?

Usually, the product owner facilitates backlog refinement. However, sometimes, the scrum master may do it autonomously or work with the product owner to refine backlogs. 

Bottom line: Backlog refinement is essential for successful project completion

Backlog refinement is an essential component of agile product management methodologies like Scrum. It helps fill the gap between user expectations, challenges faced by the development team, and business goals.

For implementing product backlog, it always helps to start with identifying the responsible individual, and then diving into the list of backlog item tasks. While implementing, using technology tools makes it easier to create and break user stories into manageable chunks and liaise with different stakeholders. 

If you like the resources we discussed here, or are interested in product roles in general, CareerFoundry’s free product management short course should help you get started on your awareness about building and launching products. So sign up for this course and start your learning journey today. 

If you’d like to read more on the subject of product management and scrum instead, check out these articles:

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