How to Clean Up Your Giant Backlog

How to Clean Up Your Giant Backlog

by | Mar 3, 2020

Is your product backlog too big and unmanageable? Is the team having a hard time using the backlog or even intimidated by its size? Yikes! Well, you’re not alone. So often we hear and talk about best practices for splitting backlog items (a.k.a. user stories). You may have also even heard the acronym INVEST to describe good user stories, where ‘S’ equals ‘small enough’ or ‘sized appropriately’. Sized appropriately means that high-value items near the top of the backlog are small enough for the team to clearly understand, work on, and finish in less than a few days (or less than half the duration of a sprint if you’re sprinting as a rule of thumb). However, sized appropriately also means that backlog items not near the top of the backlog are not as detailed or refined — they are larger and may even be huge epics! Usually, when we start out on a new project or backlog, our backlogs are more likely to look that way (unless we’ve spent too much time refining the entire backlog upfront). But a more common situation is that, over time, the backlog has become a dumping ground of suggestions, old work, and overly detailed in the wrong places. In this case, I often like to remind teams that, in addition to splitting backlog items, it’s also a great practice to merge backlog items when you’re grooming the backlog — this can help reduce the overall size of the backlog and make it an effective tool once again. Here are the 3 steps I recommend for reducing the size of your backlog:

Step 1: Prioritize Important Items

Ensure that the next important items in the backlog are in fact at the top for the team to review and work on for the next few weeks or iterations of work. Do this first because cleaning up the backlog can take time and we don’t want that activity to jeopardize the work that the team is and should be doing today.

Step 2: Delete Low Value Items

Delete (or safely move) the backlog items that are likely to never get done or are of very little to no value. If no one knows or can remember what that backlog item is about or whether it still makes sense anymore then get rid of it! Don’t worry, if it’s important enough, it will be brought up again at some point and can be added back to the backlog.

Step 3: Merge the Similar Items

Now, merge items in the backlog that are similar to one another and that don’t need to be so small. Usually, that’s everything near the bottom of the backlog and things that aren’t likely to be worked on for many months or more. If and when the team gets to that item (or part of that item) to work on, it will get refined and split again.

So remember, a good backlog is always emerging and changing based on the latest information we have. When attempting to clean up a backlog, if it’s a big job, then think about doing so incrementally instead of all at once. And lastly, remember that merging backlog items can be just as useful as splitting them!