Why Developers and Managers Should Co-Own the Backlog

As an Agile product grows and changes, the backlog — a list of features, tasks, and bug fixes to be completed — evolves continuously. This living document often acts as the primary source of truth for the team’s priorities and needed work.

As a consultancy, we at Atomic work with a variety of clients and have seen a wide range of backlog management approaches. Some clients have a dedicated product owner managing and prioritizing the backlog. Others lean on our Delivery Leads to convert their vision into an actionable backlog. Most clients take a hybrid approach, where the product owner and Delivery Lead work together to manage the backlog.

Regardless of the approach, projects have the most success when developers and project managers co-own the backlog. Being closest to the code, developers understand the technical implications of the work better than anyone else on the team. Their involvement in backlog management allows them to assist project managers in prioritizing work and ensuring that the backlog is realistic and achievable.

In this article, we’ll explore why involving developers in backlog management contributes positively to a project, and share strategies to optimize projects so developers can contribute meaningfully to the backlog.

Why Developers Should Be Involved in Backlog Management

1. Reduce technical debt.

Technical debt is the cost of doing things the quick and dirty way. Developers sometimes take shortcuts to get something done quickly, accumulating technical debt in the process. While a natural part of software development, if left unchecked, technical debt can become a huge problem.

Project managers don’t have visibility into the growth of technical debt throughout a project. As a result, technical debt often takes a backseat to new features and functionality.

Involving developers in backlog management introduces a system of checks and balances. Developers can identify and document technical debt in the backlog, voicing the need for its resolution. This documentation hardwires it into the system, preventing it from being sidelined or forgotten.

2. Improve estimates.

Estimating the time and effort it takes to complete a task is a challenge for even the most seasoned software developers. An underestimate can put the team under pressure, while an overestimate could leave the team idle.

Developer involvement in backlog management can make this estimation process more accurate. Their insight into the associated work and its impact on the overall timeline helps project managers make better decisions about prioritizing tasks.

3. Strengthen communication.

Effective communication forms the bedrock of successful software development. Standard meetings like stand-ups or sprint planning keep team members aligned in general terms, but intricate technical aspects require deeper dives, and the backlog can facilitate this.

During these in-depth discussions, developers can list the technical intricacies of each task. Do they anticipate disruptive dependencies? Are there architectural changes that need consideration? Such insights become a part of the backlog, supplying future developers with a clear context of tasks and thereby minimizing the need for extensive knowledge transfer.

4. Empower teams.

By endorsing backlog co-ownership, we transition from rigid hierarchies towards a flat, inclusive structure. Developers aren’t merely executors of presented tasks — they play an integral part in project decisions about what to do and when to do it. This empowerment mirrors Atomic’s core value, “Own It,” translating it into actionable practice.

Through this delegation of responsibility, the team ethos shifts positively. Accomplishing milestones becomes a shared success, and setbacks become a collective challenge to overcome.

Optimizing for Backlog Co-Ownership

Backlog co-ownership offers a path to collaboration and empowerment, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. Such a significant leap from traditional backlog management requires trust, transparency, and commitment from both developers and project managers.

Both parties must trust in each other’s ability to execute their roles effectively. Regular communication, concerning project vision, progress, and challenges, facilitates transparency, aligning the team. Moreover, some developers may need additional training to transition from purely technical roles to roles with strategic influence.

While these steps towards backlog co-ownership might seem substantial, the return on the investment is higher. Cooperative involvement, team empowerment, and shared success enrich the work culture and yield superior software products.


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