Backlog refinement: what is it and how do you approach it?

You have a managerial position in an ever-changing (business) environment. You are always working towards new goals and plans. And in order to realize those plans and achieve goals, the process must be streamlined. Effective software development is of crucial importance.

Backlog refinement is an indispensable step in this process. But what exactly does this mean and how do you best approach it? You can read it in this blog. We delve deeper into backlog refinement and provide practical insights for successful implementation.

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement is the process by which the development team works together to update the items on the product backlog to refine and prioritize. It involves clearly defining the important requirements, adding details, and estimating the complexity of each item so that the team clearly understands what they need to do. Take, for example, a development team that has a backlog containing all user stories for an e-commerce website. During a refinement session, the team reviews the items on the backlog to clarify and prioritize them for the next sprint. For example, during this session they can further develop a user story with the title ‘Users can add products to their shopping cart’. They discuss the details of this functionality, such as the user interface interaction, the associated backend process and any exception cases. They add more details such as screen designs, database interaction requirements, and any validation logic. And they estimate the complexity of the user story. 

What is the difference between backlog refinement and backlog grooming?

Sometimes you read about backlog refinement and other times about backlog grooming. But what is the difference between these two terms? Although the terms are often used interchangeably, backlog refinement and backlog grooming refer to the same process. Both approaches are about specifying and prioritizing backlog items to improve the productivity and efficiency of the development team.

When do you use backlog refinement?

Sprint planning takes place at the start of each sprint. Part of this is backlog refinement. During the backlog refinement, the work for the next sprints is well prepared. You can apply the process on an ad-hoc basis if necessary. It is a continuous process that helps to keep the backlog relevant, up-to-date and executable.

Why is backlog refinement important?

Backlog refinement is really necessary if you are successful software development project want to run. Why is that necessary? There are several reasons for this:

  • Clear image | It provides a clear picture of the requirements and expectations of the project. 
  • Risk identification | It helps to identify and reduce risks by addressing potential bottlenecks in time. 
  • Accuracy | It also improves the accuracy of estimates and planning, ensuring realistic goals and deadlines. 
  • Transparency |Transparency and cooperation are increased within the development team but also with other stakeholders.

If you regularly apply backlog refinement to your ongoing (software) projects, this has a lot of advantages. Below you can read some of them: 

  • Increased productivity and efficiency of the development team.
  • Better control over project scope and planning.
  • Increased flexibility to respond to changing demands and market conditions.

How do you approach refining your backlog?

Backlog refinement is an essential part of Agile methodologies such as Scrum. But how do you effectively approach such a process? Below you will find a handy 10-step plan.

  1. Schedule regular sessions backlog refinement in, during the sprint. 
  2. At the beginning of the session, explain the purpose of the backlog refinement session. For example, to update the product backlog, specify existing items or determine priorities.
  3. Make sure the backlog is up to date and that all items the team needs to discuss during the session have been added.
  4. Start the session by discussing the most important items and priorities in the backlog.
  5. If items are too large or unclear, divide into smaller, manageable tasks. So that every item is clear and understandable for the team.
  6. Make sure you establish clear acceptance criteria for each item in the backlog. 
  7. Discuss the estimated complexity for each item in the backlog. 
  8. Identify and discuss any dependencies between backlog items. 
  9. Update the backlog with new information and changes discussed during the session.
  10. End the session with a short evaluation to discuss what went well and what can be improved for future backlog refinement sessions.

Who is involved in backlog refinement?

Various roles are involved in backlog refinement. The Product Owner plays a central role in managing the product backlog and prioritizing items based on the value they add to the product. The Product Owner often leads the backlog refinement sessions and works closely with the development team to ensure that the backlog items are clear and understandable. The development team is responsible for designing, developing and delivering the product. During these sessions they are actively discussing, refining and estimating the backlog items. The Scrum Master plays a facilitating role and ensures that the process runs smoothly. He or she helps the team understand the backlog items and identify any obstacles or dependencies. Depending on the organization, stakeholders such as customers, users, managers or other stakeholders can also be invited to participate in backlog refinement sessions. Their input can be valuable in prioritizing backlog items and establishing the direction of the product. 

What activities are there during backlog refinement?

During the day backlog refinement you and the team ensure that the product backlog is updated and specified. First, you add all newly discovered or suggested items to the backlog. Together with the team and the Product Owner, you determine which backlog items need to be addressed in the short term (priorities) and which are less urgent. You also help refine the backlog items by making them clearer and more specific. For example, by splitting large items into smaller tasks or clarifying the acceptance criteria. Together with the team, you estimate the effort for each backlog item, often using story points to determine the complexity of the work. You also map out in which areas the backlogs are dependent on each other. This helps in planning and prioritizing the work and preventing obstacles in the future.

The process of efficient backlog refinement

A session usually lasts about 1 to 2 hours. That depends on the complexity of the project. How do you start properly preparing a backlog refinement session? Ensure all relevant information and documentation is available to the team. Includes user stories, design specifications and any stakeholder feedback.

Some more tips for an efficient session

  • Keep the sessions short and focused.
  • Ensure active participation of all team members.
  • Update the backlog regularly between sessions.

After the session, it is important to document and share all updates and changes to the backlog with those involved. Make sure the team is ready to take the next steps based on the new insights and priorities.

Get started with backlog refinement yourself

Now that you have more insight into backlog refinement, you can also implement and manage this process within your own organization. Start planning regular refinement sessions and involve all relevant team members to get the most out of the backlog and ensure the success of your software development projects to increase. Would you like professional guidance with this process? At SIENN we have years of experience and we are happy to help you. Good luck!