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Building a Backlog Your Team Will Love

Structure your backlog to make it accessible to anyone.

Your development backlog is a living, breathing, ever-changing document.

When priorities are constantly shifting, the key to maintaining an organized backlog is standardizing the way it is used by product managers, developers, and anyone else making a work request. Without such standardization, your backlog becomes a dumping ground for every random idea, slowly increasing the cognitive overhead for every future backlog grooming meeting.

Don’t let your backlog become a graveyard where priorities go to get lost, and ideas go to die.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a backlog due to variable team dynamic, company size, and structure, your backlog should be your greatest communication asset when aligning on priorities.

Here are some considerations to make when building a backlog your team will love.

1. | Make it easy to log incoming work

New work requests get created everyday. It doesn’t matter what the task is or who created it, its journey through the backlog always starts in the Add New Here section.

Add New Here Section

Its name leaves no room for confusion — if you have a new task, add it here.

Tasks entering the backlog can come from many different sources:

  • A developer logs some tech debt.
  • A customer service rep logs a low priority bug.
  • A product manager needs to make an update to the copy.

Beyond ad-hoc issues, there are roadmap project tasks and retro action items that need to be accounted for.

This section becomes your complete list of tasks that need discussion in backlog grooming to determine priority, relevance, and level of effort. If you’re using Asana, you can further streamline additions by creating a rule to add it to your backlog from Incoming Issues, for instance.

Streamline additions to the Backlog by adding rules.

When you have a single source of truth for all the tasks that your team plans to work on, your stakeholders know that their needs will be prioritized.

2. | Make it easy to find what needs grooming

As the complete list of new tasks grows, backlog grooming meetings can drag quite long if you groom every task in Add New Here.

The list is a conglomerate of ideas, long-term tasks, near-term tasks, and more. Not every item on the backlog needs to be fully fleshed out and ready to work on.

In order to keep backlog grooming time efficient, prioritize grooming only the near-term tasks. Your backlog can help facilitate this discussion by holding space to offload everything else.

Not Planning To Do Section

Hold space for tasks you are Not Planning To Do.

Sometimes, what might be a great product idea turns out to be unfeasible, or it might have too little impact on the business in order to justify the high level of effort. Some ideas may also just not fit into the company vision.

For tasks that aren’t doable for whatever reason, make it easy to offload so you can move on.

Future Nice To Haves Section

Hold space for longer-term tasks relevant to the future roadmap in the Future Nice To Haves section.

This section is useful for future product planning and as record-keeping for potential ideas. Tasks might still have open questions and require more investigation, but there’s no need to suss out those details yet!

3. | Make it easy to find prioritized work

Prioritization can be tricky — you’re balancing the needs of your engineering team, the vision of the company, the requirements of the product, and more.

A common solution is an ordered list, prioritized from top to bottom, but this isn’t optimal. It can get out of order very easily as someone could forget to move a new task to the bottom of the list.

This is where having multiple priority sections come in handy.

Next Sprint Tasks / Sprint Fall Out Sections

Add New Here is the entry point of a task’s journey through the backlog as Next Sprint Tasks is the end of it. When it’s time to start a new sprint, these tasks are all moved to the next sprint project board and out of the backlog.

Often, the next sprint might also include tasks that weren’t completed in the previous sprint, logged in the Sprint Fall Out section.

When a stakeholder asks what we’re doing next sprint, it’s easy to point them to the exact section encapsulating the full scope of work.

Groomed + Prioritized Section

An unordered list of other upcoming high or medium priority tasks. When new developers join, or if bandwidth frees up in a given sprint, this section is a great place to find additional groomed tasks.

Groomed + Not Prioritized Section

An unordered list of low priority tasks. Self-explanatory.

4. | Make it easy to declutter irrelevant work

When a task has been sitting in Not Planning To Do for so long that it’s irrelevant, what do we do with it? Deleting it is often unfavorable because we don’t want to lose historical context, and having a reference to it means we won’t waste time recounting those details. Instead, we can archive it.

Archive Section

Dragging a task into the Archive section automatically moves it into another board, Backlog Archive, to reduce visual clutter so we can focus on what’s important.

Automatically archive tasks by setting up a rule for the Archive section

You can further streamline archiving by implementing another rule to declare “idea bankruptcy” — archiving tasks automatically that haven’t been touched for some period of time.

And there you have it — the skeleton of a product planning machine, easily accessible to anyone. This framework has been instrumental to Betterment’s Mobile Growth Team’s backlog in aligning across teams, and keeping us moving.

Pulling it all together, here’s the result:

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

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Amy Ly

Amy Ly

Blurbs By Amy — blurbs about my learnings as an engineering manager.

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