My Five New Backlog Management Habits for 2020

It’s 2020! In theory, you should be staying on top of your backlog all year long, but we all know how that goes… So, like working out, eating better, and getting into better habits, the new year marker can give us a chance to refresh and improve our product backlog management. Here are five ways to improve your backlog:

1. Delete anything that’s been in the backlog for more than 6 months.

I know, six months doesn’t sound that long, but if it’s not being worked on this quarter or next quarter, it’s not useful. It hasn’t been a priority, and keeping it in your backlog gives you (and the team) a mental load you don’t need to carry. If something sits around that long, you’ve already lost track of it, or you’re starting to get variations and duplicates.

I’m a “write it down, so I don’t forget” person, so I get it. Deleting things sounds scary, but I promise it will come up again if it’s important.

2. Delete items you know you’ll never do.

I used to tell stakeholders that gave me ideas for the product: “Great idea! I’ll put it in the backlog, so I don’t forget.” It made them feel heard. But let’s be honest, it was a cop-out, so I didn’t have to explain why we weren’t going to do it.

As time has gone on, there are still some of those items lingering in the backlog. So when I come across them, I delete them. I know we’ll never do them, and it’s distracting to the development team to see them pop up every once in a while. I also don’t say that to people anymore (and have learned “no” is a good word for a product owner to use). I track client ideas and some of my more fuzzy ideas in a separate place until they are ready for the backlog.

3. Review the full backlog more often.

Set a schedule that makes sense for you. Is it monthly? Quarterly? Try to carve out this time in your schedule and keep to it. Organize, reprioritize, refine, and delete items as needed.

I used to be scared to delete items—like someone was going to immediately email me or ask me about that specific story the next day. Turns out, that didn’t happen. Instead, my team had a much more manageable, focused backlog.

4. Identify work that’s been taking longer than expected.

This sounds straightforward, but sometimes a story is larger than expected, and a person or pair is stuck working through it for weeks and weeks. This especially happens on larger, more dispersed teams.

Look through the backlog and boards to find work that has been in progress in some form for more than 3 weeks. Get the team together and work through it, then move on. Fresh approaches often yield great results.

5. Define epics and features better.

Sometimes it makes sense to add more details and depth to a feature while the team is currently working on it. I’ve heard many times: “Can’t we just do this last thing? It would make a big difference.” Maybe that’s true, but it’s important to know when to draw the line, release, and iterate.

Instead of continuing to add to the backlog and put in “just one more thing,” be diligent when adding items. If there’s uncertainty about a release or feature work, more items end up getting added arbitrarily to the backlog.

I hope these tips help. When a team works on a more manageable and smaller backlog, they can feel accomplishment and progress. I know when my personal to-do list gets over 30 items, it’s daunting. But when I get it down to 10 of the most important things (and get through them), it feels good.

What else have you done to work through a crushing backlog?

  • Holly Kozminski says:

    Thanks for sharing! Agree 100%. Instead off Deleting, I choose to mark as Won’t do, so I can easily bring back in as needed and I have the history of the request. This does depend on which project management tool you use, so it might not work for everyone. I use Jira.

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