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Backlog grooming sessions explained: The complete guide
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Backlog grooming sessions explained: The complete guide

Discover the essentials of backlog grooming sessions with our detailed guide and learn how to refine your project backlog effectively.

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So you’re refining your backlog prior to sprint planning and you’ve got your team in a room to discuss which items to prioritize. Trouble is, unless your backlog is complete and well-organized, the team can’t vote on many of the items. Instead of taking quick decisions, they’ll spend most of their time trying to fill in the blanks and figure out what goes where. 

Backlog grooming is an important part of development, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a whole team activity. Instead of taking up your team’s valuable time updating your backlog, if you do more before the backlog grooming session it makes for a more productive meeting when you do get together. 

In this post, we’ll walk you through what backlog grooming is and how to do it right—before and during the session–for more effective decision-making. 

Run more efficient backlog grooming sessions. 
Switchboard saves your work, so you can share and work on your backlog before the session—and get straight down to business when you do meet.  
Learn more

What is backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming, also known as backlog refinement, is a core process in Scrum and Agile development. The backlog is a list of features or user stories that need to be built to achieve the company’s vision for the product. During backlog grooming sessions, the product owner and others prioritize backlog items, remove outdated tasks, and refine user stories to ensure they’re clear, estimable, actionable, and deliver value to users and the company. This allows the development team to select the most urgent or high-priority features to work on in upcoming sprints to meet evolving business or customer needs. 

What are the benefits of backlog grooming? 

Backlog grooming makes for more efficient sprint planning and, therefore, development. Here’s why: 

  • Clarifies priorities. By integrating feedback from stakeholders, backlog grooming helps to clearly define and align the team's work with the company's strategic objectives and customer needs.
  • Greater adaptability. Getting your priorities in order means you can quickly pivot and adapt to changes in the market or business goals. 
  • Better sprint planning. A well-maintained backlog makes for smoother sprint planning. When teams have the information they need, they can realistically assess the effort involved in producing each new feature, etc. 
  • More efficient development. By focusing on well-defined, high-priority tasks, teams avoid wasting time and effort on low-impact activities, improving productivity and outcomes.
  • Better communication across the organization: Prioritizing items based on stakeholder input ensures development teams understand priorities and are aligned on sprint goals. 

When should backlog grooming take place? 

Backlog grooming should happen regularly throughout the Agile development cycle. However, it’s most beneficial before a sprint planning session so you can choose what to work on. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all cadence for backlog grooming sessions, but they should happen at least once per sprint and often enough to allow you to adapt to evolving user and market needs and stakeholder feedback.

How often you groom your backlog can also vary with team size, project complexity, and how fast new information or changes are introduced. For example, a small startup developing a product in a rapidly changing tech market may need to groom its backlog weekly to keep up with the competition. A larger, more established company that’s updating a mature product in a stable market might find monthly sessions are enough to stay aligned with its strategic goals.

How to run a backlog grooming meeting 

Preparation, the right attendees, and a well-facilitated discussion will make your meeting go smoothly.

Prepare the backlog

The importance of preparation can’t be overstated. Before the meeting, the product owner must ensure that the backlog is up-to-date with all the necessary items–in the right level of detail–so the team can discuss them in the grooming session. This includes user stories, bug fixes, new features, and any other tasks relevant to product development. Good preparation removes the need for lengthy debate in the meeting, speeding up decision-making. 

Cristiano Bellucci, Founder, DigitIdeas and Technology Vision Strategist, Fujitsu shares how to prepare for the backlog grooming session: The product owner should consult stakeholders to understand business needs and priorities. Then, prioritize items based on this input and project needs, taking into account factors like timeframes, budgets, dependencies between items, value vs complexity, and the cost of delaying development. 

If the Scrum Master has a technical background they can also provide input about the effort required for each item, giving you a better idea of what you can take on in the next sprint. If the Scrum Master isn’t technically minded, you can ask a representative from the development team. Either way, “the goal,” says Bellucci, “is to have the features, the stories, ordered by priority, but also feasibility.” 

There are a variety of methods you can use to prioritize. For example: 

  • Numerical scoring. Assign a numerical value from 1-10 to value, effort, and risks. Then, add them up and compare the results for each item against others.

  • MoSCoW method. This involves looking at must-have features (items that you can’t deliver the product without), should-haves (less impactful), could-haves (small-scale improvements), and won’t-haves (don’t serve the immediate project needs) to see which items meet these criteria.

  • Kano method. This involves taking user satisfaction as a guide to rank features into must-haves, extremely desirable, add extra value, add no value, or should be avoided (as they might even negatively impact the user). 

Whichever methodology you use, the key is to be consistent.  

The product owner should also add any necessary detail to the highest priority items, as well as the acceptance criteria for items to be considered “ready.” This ensures each one is clearly defined and aligned with the latest project goals and stakeholder feedback. For example, if the product owner hears from the customer success team that users want more control over permissions settings, they can integrate this into the backlog and assess whether it changes the order of priority of that item. 

“The most important thing,” says Bellucci, “are the results. You want to achieve a clear order of features so the development team can take on one after the other based on priorities.” 

Schedule the meeting 

Next, the Scrum Master or meeting facilitator can schedule the meeting. It’s their job to keep people on track and invite the right (and only the right) people. These might include: 

  • Product owner. They’re responsible for the product backlog and leading the grooming sessions. As well as prioritizing backlog items, it’s their job to ensure the team understands the user stories and their acceptance criteria.

  • Development team or team representative. They’re the ones tasked with turning backlog items into working features, so they need to understand items before they can vote on which to move forward with. They can also provide insights on the technical feasibility and estimation of effort for each item.

  • Subject matter experts (SMEs). Occasionally, SMEs like business analysts or quality assurance (QA) engineers might be invited to provide additional insights or clarifications on specific backlog items. For instance, if the backlog includes a complex user story that involves compliance with data security legislation, a cybersecurity SME can help clarify requirements and potential risks so the team can make informed decisions about the effort involved. 

When scheduling the meeting, the Scrum Master should share the meeting agenda so everyone knows what to expect. This is likely to include items like reviewing user stories, identifying risks, blockers, and dependencies, estimating effort involved, and voting on items accordingly.

Pro tip: Share the agenda and relevant project materials in your dedicated Switchboard room for backlog grooming. That way, everyone can get up to speed before the meeting and know what to expect.
Switchboard room with project materials.
Switchboard saves your work, so it’s easy to keep everything and everyone organized in the same place. 

Estimate and discuss

Once they meet, the development team can discuss items, debate technical feasibility, and provide estimates of effort. The point of this meeting is to ensure team members understand each backlog item and its complexities. This puts them in a better position to estimate the effort required and, therefore, whether an item can realistically be included in the upcoming sprint.

If the product owner has prepared well, the meeting can be as short as 30 minutes. Here's how it might go:

  • User story discussion. The product owner presents the top user stories for the development team to discuss, ask questions, clarify details, and understand what’s required to meet the acceptance criteria. For instance, they might have questions about user access to parts of a new CRM system. This process lets the team grasp the full scope and complexity of the work before they estimate the effort involved.
  • Decomposition. If a user story is too complex or broad, the team may break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. This allows for more precise estimations and an understanding of which tasks can realistically be completed within the sprint.
  • Estimate story points. Now, it’s time to estimate effort and vote. Each team member should independently decide how many points for effort to award each user story before sharing their evaluation with the team. If there's a significant difference between estimates, the team discusses the reasons and tries to reach a consensus before voting again. Techniques for this range from the simple (raise the fingers on one hand) to more involved, like Planning Poker where you reveal a score on a card.    
  • Trade-offs and decisions. The product owner can guide the team in understanding the trade-offs involved in different estimation scenarios. If the team can’t reach an agreement, the product owner or Scrum Master can choose for them. However, the final decision should really rest with the dev team. If they can’t agree, it may indicate that an item isn’t sufficiently well defined for them to be able to make a decision. In that case, the product owner may need to go back to stakeholders and get more details before reintroducing the item in the next backlog grooming session. 

After the session, the product owner should review the backlog to ensure that it reflects the outcomes of the discussion. Also, that all items are prioritized correctly based on team feedback and any new information that came to light during the session.

Pro tip: When you meet in Switchboard, you can pull up your favorite planning poker tool, create a poll to vote on items, or type your scores in the chat.
Switchboard room with various apps.
All your favorite apps work in Switchboard, with no need for integrations. 

Backlog grooming best practices

As well as doing more before the meeting, here are some best practices to make your backlog grooming sessions as effective as possible: 

  • Regularly groom and prune your backlog. Frequently review and remove items that are no longer relevant or have become obsolete. This keeps your backlog clean and focused, so your team doesn’t waste time on outdated or irrelevant tasks. Regular grooming also puts you in a better position to swiftly adapt to changing user needs. 
  • Use the DEEP framework. Ensure your backlog is Detailed enough that each item can be understood by team members; Emergent or constantly evolving as you learn more about user needs and market changes; has time Estimated to facilitate planning; and Prioritized to highlight the most critical tasks first.
  • Make sessions collaborative. Estimating the time and effort to develop a feature, fix a bug, etc. isn’t always easy. Different team members will bring different–and valuable–experiences and perspectives, so you should create a space where everyone can contribute equally.
  • Share the why. When your team understands the context and rationale behind backlog items, says Bellucci, it boosts motivation, buy-in, and alignment. 
  • Use the right tools. Dedicated backlog grooming tools like Jira facilitate backlog management by helping you prioritize and update an organized backlog with prioritized user stories. As well as specialized tools, you’ll want real-time and asynchronous collaboration tools like Switchboard where you can share information beforehand and then meet to discuss the backlog. Digital workflow solutions like Zapier are also handy for connecting the tools in your tech stack, reducing siloed information and working. 
Pro tip: When you meet in Switchboard, you can pull up all the apps, files, and documents your team needs and work on them side by side. As well as keeping everything organized in one place, this reduces meeting prep time, makes sessions more collaborative, and avoids unproductive context switching between tabs and tools. Best of all, everything stays right where you left it when the meeting’s over, so you can always refer back to it.
Switchboard room with people and apps.
Pull up all the apps and files you need with a simple copy-paste and they’ll stay right where you left them after the session. 

Backlog grooming: Move faster by doing more beforehand

That chaotic backlog grooming session we outlined at the start? Imagine it now, transformed from a grueling marathon to a snappy, 30-minute session. With all items detailed and prioritized before the meeting, it’s easy for the team to understand, estimate, and vote on them—and get quickly back to work. 

Effective backlog grooming is all about preparation and involving the right team members and stakeholders in prioritizing detailed user stories based on the latest insights about team capacity, velocity, and business and customer needs. You also need to create a space where everyone can visualize items and contribute equally. 

That’s easy when you use Switchboard for backlog management: With dedicated rooms that save your work and let you explore any app or file side by side, you can get together for conversations with stakeholders or decision-making with your team—in real-time or async. 

Run more efficient backlog grooming sessions. 
Switchboard saves your work, so you can share and work on your backlog before the session—and get straight down to business when you do meet.  
Learn more

Frequently asked questions about backlog grooming

What’s the difference between backlog grooming and backlog refinement? 

Backlog grooming and backlog refinement are the same thing: an Agile process aimed at keeping your product backlog up to date, prioritized, and actionable. “Refinement" has become more popular in recent years as it better reflects the ongoing, iterative nature of the process. 

What is backlog grooming vs sprint planning? 

Backlog grooming and sprint planning are two different but complementary processes in Agile project management. 

  • Backlog grooming is an ongoing process that involves reviewing, detailing, estimating, and prioritizing backlog items like new user stories so they’re ready for future sprints. 
  • Sprint planning is a specific meeting at the start of each sprint where the team selects items from the groomed backlog to work on during the upcoming sprint. 

In essence, backlog grooming ensures the backlog is ready for the Agile team to vote on items that will go forward to the sprint planning meeting. 

What is an example of product backlog grooming? 

An example of product backlog grooming might involve the product owner, meeting facilitator, and the development team at a mobile app development company reviewing a high-priority user story during a backlog refinement meeting. The story describes a new feature that allows users to filter search results within the app. The product team discusses the story details so everyone understands the requirements and can estimate the effort needed and vote. 

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Run more efficient backlog grooming sessions.

Switchboard saves your work, so you can share and work on your backlog before the session—and get straight down to business when you do meet.