Nov. 16, 2011

Tips and Tricks for the beginner Product Owner: How long is your backlog?

It is not the size of your Product Backlog that matters!

Many Product Owners I coached are obsessed by the length of their Product Backlog. While the fact that I only encountered three female Product Owners in my whole career, might explain parts of this phenomena, there is more to explore about this.

A newbie Product Owner is often frightened about his backlog being too short. Having 15-20 User Stories ready for the next Sprint Planning is often hard for a beginner. After a while, it turns into an obsession, as a long Product Backlog gives a feeling of safety.

Guys, and the few Gals out there: It is not the size of your Product Backlog that matters! Keep three interesting numbers in your mind (from Dave Snowden):

5 - Number of things an average human can simultaneously keep in his mind

15 - Number of people a human being can trust

150 - Number of people we can keep as acquaintances (see Dunbar’s law)

You should be able to keep your backlog in your head. This is why it is not a good idea to let your backlog grow over 150 items at any given time. - If we cannot relate to more than 150 people, we cannot relate to 150 backlog items. Once it exceeds the 150 items limit, some of them are just going to be overlooked and this is worse than if they were not existing at all. Your relatives are going to be upset if you forget about them as well!

„Backlog Grooming“ does not mean to constantly slice all backlog items into little pieces. It does mean to keep the Product Backlog „detailed appropriately“ (see DEEP acronym). So keep your top requirements sliced into small pieces and wait with slicing the rest until it is their turn. Some items may never emerge to the top and will clutter your Product Backlog for a long time if you are not careful. It is a wrong assumption that anticipating work on low priority Backlog items will increase your efficiency , when it will be their turn to make it at the top of the backlog, they will have changed so much that you will have to start all over again.

Also, don‘t bother yourself or your stakeholders with low priority items. - And also don‘t bother your developers with estimations for those items, instead keep the Product Backlog as short as it can be. Consider having ready not more than the double of the items that normally get pulled out of the backlog for one sprint, more than that might be  waste.

Instead, focus on the top items and prepare the next Sprint. Part of the preparation for next Sprint is also the context, so be also ready to talk about the high level requirements for the next 3-4 Sprints and keep them high level.

Your backlog is your weapon for maximizing the return on investment and get your work done as well as transparently share what the defined order of execution is. Handle it with care and care for it often. It shall be detailed appropriately, the top items estimated, emergent and most important - ordered! (Meaning there is one priority 1 item and one priority 2 item and so on.) These attributes will be subjects of other blog posts in the future.

Keep it short enough to stay on top of it and long enough to allow your teams to chose which items to work on in the upcoming sprint.Remember also to provide enough context and direction about where the whole product is manoeuvring to. Its quality and not size that matters!

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Franz Ivancsich

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Franz Ivancsich

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