Backlog refinement guide

“Refined” is a compliment reserved for fine wines, classic cars, and Scandinavian furniture. Could you say the same of your backlog?

Max Rehkopf By Max Rehkopf
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The Oxford Dictionary defines “refinement” as the improvement or clarification of something by the making of small changes. Do you approach your backlog in a similar way? Or are you just trying to keep all the trains running on time? This backlog refinement guide will teach you the steps and best practices you’ll need to successfully refine your backlog and make it something you’re proud of. 

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement is the process of reviewing, ranking, and editing your product backlog. Backlog refinement is an important tool in your product development process because it helps your development team build only the features and functionalities that the customer wants and the business needs. Backlog refinement is an ongoing process championed by the product owner, product managers, scrum master, and representatives from the development team. 

Backlog grooming vs backlog refinement

There is no difference between backlog grooming and backlog refinement. The terms are interchangeable. Backlog refinement has gained popularity in recent years and is now commonplace among many teams. Although you may still hear “backlog grooming” used, agile backlog refinement seems to be the industry standard. 

Backlog refinement vs sprint planning

Sprint planning and backlog refinement rely on each other. Backlog refinement ensures that the backlog is reflective of lessons learned, customer insight, and business value. In sprint planning, the development team pulls work from the backlog and commits to deliver that work in the upcoming sprint. Sprint planning is reliant on a refined backlog and backlog refinement gets the highest-priority work into the next sprint. Product owners should refine the product backlog before each sprint planning meeting.

Best practices for backlog refinement

Once the backlog gets larger, product owners can group the backlog into near-term and long-term items. Near-term items need to be fully fleshed out before they are labeled as such. This means complete user stories have been drawn up, collaboration with design and development has been sorted out, and estimates from development have been made. Longer -term items can remain a bit vague, though it's a good idea to get a rough estimate from the development team to help prioritize them. 

Backlog refinement meeting

Teams find that backlog refinement is most successful when done collaboratively in a recurring  meeting. Backlog refinement needs to happen before each sprint planning meeting which is usually every two weeks. Most teams need about 30 minutes to walk through the process. The backlog is managed by the product owner and backlog refinement also happens on the fly as the product owner learns more and integrates feedback from customers and the business. 

What happens during a backlog refinement meeting?

Backlog refinement focuses on adjusting, estimating, and ranking the issues. Adjustments can be small things like adding descriptions and large edits like splitting or combining issues. Adding estimations often happens in backlog refinement aided by the dev team. Lastly, ranking the backlog in a clear, well-understood manner helps the dev team know what is the highest-priority.

Who runs and attends a backlog refinement meeting?

Backlog refinement meetings are run by the product owner. In addition to the product owner, the meetings are attended by product managers, the scrum master, and at least one representative from the development team. Not all team members are required but it's important to have at least one representative from dev and QA present.

Steps of backlog refinement

Pull up your project management tool, like Jira Software, and navigate to the backlog. In the backlog view, you can drag and drop the issues into a rough priority order. Issues at the top of the backlog list should include relevant details, like time estimates and assignee, so they’re ready for action in the next sprint. Delete duplicate issues and break work into subtasks as needed. Before closing out, confirm your priority ranking. The prioritized backlog guides the focus of your next sprint planning meeting.

Manage backlogs better with Jira

Jira Software makes backlog refinement easy. Product owners can estimate, rank, and refine in one view.

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