In one of recent postings I asked you how big your backlog is. My argument was that trying to enforce small backlog size is counterproductive. Although small backlog is easier to manage throwing things away from it just to keep it small isn’t the best idea.
However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do some backlog maintenance from time to time. What more, applying a few simple rules can help you to manage backlog easily despite its pretty big size.
Keep epics, split late
Sometimes we add to our product a big story. An epic. It is actually pretty interesting example in terms of sizing backlog. Why? Well, no matter if you split the epic into a list of smaller stories, i.e. sized similarly to your typical features, or keep it big you add a huge piece of work. A piece, which usually makes sense as long as it is completed as a whole. So yes, you need quite a capacity to add the feature, no matter which approach you choose. What do you do if your backlog is limited?
Anyway, my advice is to keep epics in backlog as long as possible and split them in the last responsible moment. It is aligned with agile late design approach but that’s not why I advise you so. Actually as long as you don’t start working on the epic there’s no reason to keep a dozen of sticky notes on the board instead of a single one. It’s enough for you to look at epic to know roughly what is to be done. You will need more details when you start development of first epic-related feature so no need to worry at the moment.
It is easier to reprioritize the epic over and over again if it’s in one piece. And reprioritizing is the most common task when it comes to managing backlog.
Groom from time to time
If you have spacious backlog you will face this situation on occasions: you will find out that one or more features waiting in the backlog are no longer relevant. Maybe you’ve changed the goal of your app or you abandoned industry which was addressed with the feature or you just don’t have a faintest idea why you wanted to build the damn thing in the first place. Either way it’s time to forget about it.
Grooming backlog is a great occasion to do that. What exactly grooming is? A simple process of reviewing all features in backlog to verify their relevancy. Yes, if your backlog is big it takes time. But after all this is the way to make it at least a bit smaller, thus more manageable. And you don’t do it every week as you don’t change general plans for your product that often.
There’s an observation which can be helpful as well. Unless we work on maintenance project where priorities are usually set by the client we tend to build groups of similar features and not randomly choose one from here and another from there. Grouping features which are similar or features which touch the same parts of code can be helpful in terms of prioritizing work. Once done you can just throw in another feature from the group instead of scanning through the whole backlog to look for a relevant task to put in todo queue. That is as long as your general priorities don’t change.
Grouping features also helps in prioritizing whole backlog. Instead of considering each and every feature separately you decide on a group which means you use the same time to judge a dozen of tasks you’d use to judge a single task otherwise.
Dealing with big backlog isn’t that hard after all. All you need is some order and a few rules which help you to organize a long list of tasks somehow.