Stay on top of Tasks with Backlog Grooming

In 2021, more and more projects are being managed by full or partially remote teams, where keeping everyone on the same page can be a difficult task. One particularly useful strategy our team has found to stay on track is the backlog grooming meeting (also known as a backlog refinement meeting). On our team, new work is divided into two categories: work that is brand new and poorly defined and work that is designed and ready for an engineer to begin developing. In other words, problems and solutions. Our backlog grooming meeting is our time to get together and discuss problems and collectively arrive at an adequate solution. During grooming, we discuss each problem using these steps:

  1. Acceptance Criteria: How will we determine when this work is complete?
  2. Developer Guidelines: What strategy should be used to solve this problem?
  3. Effort: How long do we think it will take to solve this problem?
  4. Priority: How big of an impact does this problem have on our clients?

Once the meeting is over, our task board is re-loaded with new work that is well-understood by the entire team. Our problems have been transformed into solutions not-yet in development.

So, why do we make this process a meeting when the project manager or the business analyst provide the priority and the requirements? Why bring developers and QA into the discussion, when they could be busy working on implementation and testing? For our team, the backlog grooming meeting more than makes up the time we spend each week by keeping our stand ups short and reducing the number of defects found in QA. As an added bonus, we get the benefit of coming up with better solutions that can usually be worked by any part of the dev team. Sprint planning (or release planning for our team) is also more effective because we have a good idea of how long it will take to complete upcoming work.

The benefits of having a regular backlog grooming meeting may have you convinced, but how should you start? Everyone knows that developers hate meetings, and adding another weekly meeting for an hour or more is sure to be met with a chorus of groans, right? My advice is to start off with the backlog grooming as a team-building exercise, similar to the sprint retrospective. You can talk about favorite movies, hobbies, whatever will get the team in the mood for a discussion for a few minutes before moving onto the work. Once your team is at ease, make sure that everyone is able to participate in shaping solutions. Take turns proposing ideas and offer lots of encouragement. You should also take care that all of the work that is to be discussed is as complete as it can be. Do the bugs have screenshots or videos? Do you have mock-ups to go over? Keeping these things ready will help your team feel like they’re not wasting their time waiting for you to get organized. Finally, you should definitely keep an eye on your team’s productivity for several weeks after you introduce backlog grooming meetings. Not every agile process works for every team, and the process doesn’t fit your team, you should drop it.