Refining Our Backlog Triggers an Ambivalent Feeling

Too Many Tasks Crying for Action Prevent Us From Acting

Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers


It’s easy to get rid of things when there is an obvious reason for doing so. It’s much more difficult when there is no compelling reason.

Marie Kondō has taught us to throw away all the things from the past that no longer contribute to our lives. One example is the tasks we have promised to carry out but will probably never have time for. Our to-do list — in scrum called the product backlog — tends to grow and grow and grow. And size matters.

A long and fragmented backlog makes it harder for us to focus on our ongoing work, it makes future prioritization difficult, it reduces our commitment, and it deceives our stakeholders into believing that they will soon receive a delivery. The math is simple: the backlog grows when we add more than we remove. Unfortunately, adding less is not an option. At least not when humans are involved.

There is no limit to how many useful ideas we can come up with.

All humans are equipped with a prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain enables us to generate more potential tasks than we have time to complete. Joseph Juran coined the term The Pareto Principle — a.k.a. the 80/20 rule — meaning that a minority of these tasks create a majority of the impact. The few vital tasks create almost all the value. Even though the other 80 percent are useful, it seems tempting to permanently skip them.

Cutting down on things to do is not a one-off activity. Here are five ways to routinely trim our backlog:

¹⁄ First-In-First-Out (and Gatekeeper). Once accepted, we can’t opt-out. This method forces us to instantly accept or reject any new request from our stakeholders. However, in the immediate, it might be difficult to fully understand the long-term consequences of our response. We already have other tasks in the pipeline, and no one knows how long those tasks will take. This situation raises a dilemma. If we attempt to honor all our promises, the only way to decrease the backlog is to start more and more tasks. But the more tasks we start, the more multitasking we are forced to do and the slower we will work.

²⁄ Grooming. Every other week, we review all the tasks in the backlog — the ones closer to the top are reviewed a little more carefully. Are these tasks still relevant and important or should we eliminate them? Is this job description unclear and thus we need more details? Are the estimates — if we want such — still valid? Maybe some items should be merged or split? Sometimes teams find this fine-tuning too time-consuming, even a bit Sisyphean.

³⁄ Bartering — One In, One Out. There must never be more than ten tasks in the backlog at a time. When we come up with a new task and the backlog already includes ten items, the new idea can be accepted only if we remove one of the ten already existing tasks. It can be difficult to instantly make a one-to-one comparison, which is why many teams keep a repository for new ideas. All the items in those repositories are reviewed at a weekly meeting. Eventually, some of them will replace tasks currently in the backlog.

⁴⁄ No Backlog. If it swims like a hashtag and quacks like a hashtag, then it probably is a hashtag. It may seem strange that we should refuse all requests whenever we are busy with something else. However, the queue might reside in an earlier process stage. Two or three teams that can perform the same type of work share a common backlog. This way a task does not get stuck in an individual team’s local queue simply because it ends up behind a task that turns out to be more time-consuming than we had at first thought. The individual teams have #nobacklog.

⁵⁄ Weeding. This is the method I suggest in the Monotasking book. Once a week, we start a new, empty backlog with space for a maximum of ten tasks. Feel free to look at the old backlog as well as thinking about new ideas. In the new backlog, enter a maximum of ten tasks and then shred the old backlog. This method makes it easier to get rid of eternal runners-up — tasks that always feel important but never get done. Prioritizing is what we do, not what we plan to do.

Be brave, even though tidying triggers an ambivalent feeling.

At first thought, there may seem to be no compelling reason to get rid of an individual useful task. When we consider the whole, however, we realize that we need to de-clutter the backlog on a regular basis. That statement is true even if it hurts.

It will hurt. When we throw away a good idea, the stakeholders are disappointed, the users are disappointed, and perhaps most of all, we ourselves are disappointed. Don’t let that disappointment be an obstacle to regular trimming. The alternative is worse.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

To save 35 percent on the ebook version of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, enter promo code innovation_2022 when you check out at The Pragmatic Bookshelf. The promo code is valid through December 31, 2022, and is not valid on prior purchases. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.



Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

🌱 Twenty Years of Agile Coaching and Leadership • Monotasking and Pomodoro books (700.000 copies sold)