Just create a ticket and we’ll put it in the backlog.

How many times have you heard or said this?

It’s so easy to let the projects, requests, and bugs pile up in your backlog until you can’t even remember what these tickets were in the first place. And it can feel like an impossible task to even sort through them: prioritizing what to work on first and comparing which tickets are more important than others. In this article, I will cover three things you can do today make your backlog work for you, instead of against you.

We’ll cover:

  • How to align your team to your backlog
  • How to use Jira software to manage your backlog
  • How to use relative sizing to make planning faster

Match your team to your backlog

You’re not going to be able to tackle your backlog all on your own. That is why making sure your team is pitching in to the issues in your backlog is so important.

“The goal is to shift away from long, drawn-out, low-context meetings and towards efficient assignments, priorities getting handled, and teams working together to understand the big picture.” -Grzegorz Majchrzak, Development Manager @Spartez

Think about the variety of roles on your team, the priorities your team members have, and the skillsets represented. Everyone will value your backlog tasks differently. For instance, an engineer will likely get excited about building a new feature, whereas a QA engineer will want you to tackle the growing pile of bugs.

As a team lead, it’s your job to rally everyone to focus on what will be most important to your goals using the skills each team member has. Remember, no one type of task is more important than the other. That will depend upon your product.

Keep your own bias in mind, too — no doubt you have a particular bent on things that will influence how you want to prioritize issues.

In order to make everyone’s voice heard, agree on the amount of time you are going to dedicate to each specific category: technical debt, new features, and bugs. When we started this on my team we had hundreds of items in the backlog, and this method of prioritization has worked well for us.

We dedicate our time like this:

  • 70% of time: new features
  • 15% of time: bug fixing
  • 15% of time: technical debt

Pro tip: We learned that the highest percentage items always tend to overcome the lower percentage items. So, we started off addressing the lower percentages early on in our sprint before getting to shipping features later in the sprint. It also doesn’t hurt to get some quick wins early on in the sprint so everyone’s feeling nice and productive.

Bring in Jira Software for backlog grooming

Like you might do, we organize all our work in Jira Software.

The workflow we have found to be most helpful takes a little but of creative thinking, but we think it works great. Here’s what we do:

  • Organize tickets into categories like technical debt, bugs, feature requests, etc. We create fake sprints for each category, but never start them. We just use them as a visual guide.
  • Then, we start moving issues from our huge backlog to a specific category. Leave the “backlog” for the product manager.
  • When we create our sprints, we drag these issues into their corresponding sprint and see the story points they require.

The great thing about this system is you can see what issues you have in each category and you will notice if it’s piling up. You also aren’t forced into comparing the importance of feature requests to bugs and technical debt, you can compare each item in its category to others like it. If the items in each category are growing, this may tell you you should adjust your percentages.

Relative sizing, relative mass valuation

Relative mass valuation is a quick way to estimate a large amount of stories as they relate to each other. This process has been faster for us than planning poker, more specific than t-shirt sizing, and we’ve made some of our own adjustments. Here are our steps:

  1. Get around a big table.
  2. Print the cards from Jira. You can choose card size, and what to print (you can also get an Atlassian marketplace app for this).
  3. Take a break from your screen and do some manual work to cut the cards.
  4. Stand around the table with the papers and distribute them. It doesn’t matter who gets what card.
  5. Put a card on the table, use the table to measure. (For instance, the make the top of the table “the hardest thing” and the bottom of the table “the easiest thing.”)
  6. As the second card comes in ask, “Is it easier than, harder than, or equal to the previous task?” And so on with the following cards.
  7. Draw lines when you see there is a specific distinction of effort.
  8. Assign story points.

Here’s a quick tutorial video I put together:

“When just looking at a screen, it is easy for people to zone out and start thinking of the next thing they need to do. With cards in front of you, it becomes more focused and interactive than one would expect.”
-Stephen Costanzo, Agile Coach @ T-Mobile

Pro tip: Keep your cards from each sprint and evaluate which ones were correctly measured. Then, use them as a baseline for future planning.

In sum

Having a healthy backlog means having a healthy team. Where expectations are clear, where you have a tool that helps you keep expectations high, and you have a process light enough to make everyone feel like a part of it.

Always remember: Empower your team. Process is just as important as finished product.

This talk was given at Atlassian Summit 2017. To hear Carlos’ full presentation, check it out here.

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