Hey Product Manager, is your backlog mature?

As the world embraces the Agile methodologies with gusto, it is important to get certain elements right to ensure that the key Agile principles are properly implemented. One such element is Transparency. A mature Product Backlog goes a long way in ensuring transparency.

For the beginner, a Product Backlog is a wish list of features or enhancements that would make your product great. It contains User stories which are features or enhancements written in the language of the end user. Contrary to Waterfall projects which have a baselined and frozen list of requirements, the Product Backlog is kept alive and constantly modified through the life of the Product. It is this changing nature of the Product Backlog that is both an asset and a potential liability. It is important to ensure that the Product Backlog does not become just a stale document of EVERYTHING that might or might not get implemented in the product’s lifetime. It is the Product Manager’s responsibility to maintain a mature backlog and once done, everyone involved in the organization stands to gain from it.

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With this background, I shall now attempt to define the characteristics of “A Mature Product Backlog”.

Valuable User Stories: A Mature Product Backlog contains user stories that deliver value to the customer. Each user story should take the product one step closer to the product that the end user desires. Additionally, each user story should have Acceptance criteria clearly listing the boundary conditions, performance criteria and other quality expectations.

Prioritized Backlog: The Product Backlog should be prioritized by the Product Owner in terms of the highest value stories at the top of the list. Another factor to be considered is the Risk involved in implementing the user story. It is a good idea to categorize user stories on Value and Risk and then prioritize the backlog on Value first and Risk next. High Value Low Risk stories would be at the top with the Low Value High Risk stories at the bottom.

INVEST(ed) User stories: A mature Product Backlog has user stories that follow Bill wake’s Independant, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Sized appropriately and Testable (INVEST) mnemonic.

A definite list: The backlog is a list of user stories that will make your product great and it is not possible to only have a certain number of user stories in it. However, instead of having an endless list of small and big features, all I want you to do is a) Keep features that are due to be implemented in the current Release very detailed, b) Group similar features that are part of future releases into Epics and c) Keep user stories from future releases big and break them down into smaller user stories only as you come close to implementing them.

Estimated User stories: This is an Optional requirement for a mature Backlog. It is great to have a Product Backlog with user stories that are assigned story points to determine the size and effort involved. This helps the Product Owner in prioritizing the user stories. For estimating a large number of user stories, Planning poker could be ineffective and the Affinity estimating technique will be a better method.

Over to you now. do let us know if something is missing in this list.

(Pic: Thanks to Flickr: Creative Commons for the Backlog pic)

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