Magdalena Jackiewicz
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Magdalena Jackiewicz
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Agile backlog grooming 101: prioritize effectively with our step-by-step guide

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Effective product backlog grooming stands tall as a critical cornerstone for project success. Just like a well-tuned engine keeps a car running smoothly, regular backlog refinement ensures that your development team remains focused, deals with the priorities and remains driven towards delivering valuable increments. Yet, this essential practice is often overlooked, leading to costly consequences that can spell disaster for even the most promising projects.

Without a well-refined backlog, unplanned work and last-minute additions become the norm. This can disrupt the sprint, lead to missed deadlines, and cause chaos in the development process. In this blog post, I’m delving deep into the intricacies of the backlog grooming process and everything else you need to know to master it. 

Let’s start with key concepts.

What is scrum backlog grooming?

Backlog grooming, also known as backlog refinement, is a crucial process in Agile project management, particularly in Scrum. It’s all about keeping the backlog organized and ready for implementation by the development team. 

This is achieved through answering questions that typically arise during sprint meetings. It isn’t just a single event, but an ongoing, periodic activity that involves reviewing, prioritizing, and refining product backlog items (you will find a 5-step process outlined in the last sedition of this article).  

Scrum backlog grooming helps you plan more effectively and collaborate to deliver high-quality software. It’s a standard practice in Agile development and those product managers who know how to prioritize the backlog well not only deliver top-notch results within the budget and agreed timeline, but also contribute to the reduction of technical debt.

Why is backlog grooming important?

I imagine that at this point you already understand the importance of implementing regular Agile grooming sessions into your project management process. Here are all the not-so-obvious benefits this will help you unlock: 

  • Effective prioritization: backlog grooming sessions help teams prioritize items based on their value, business impact, and dependencies. The process ensures the most valuable and crucial work is addressed first. 
  • Better planning: the more refined the backlog is, the better you’ll do at sprint planning. Backlog grooming helps you set realistic commitments and achievable goals for the upcoming sprint.
  • Early risk detection: as you revise backlog items for prioritization, you notice risks and dependencies. This early awareness allows to proactively manage such risks and plan how to handle dependencies during development, preventing potential bottlenecks or technical debt build-up.
  • Productivity boost: by organizing and prioritizing backlog items, product owners can reduce time otherwise wasted on low-priority or irrelevant tasks. 
  • Stakeholder satisfaction: backlog grooming involves collaboration with stakeholders and end-users, taking their feedback into account. As such, the process is vital to aligning the product with their expectations. 
  • Continuous improvement: grooming sessions reflect the Agile principle of continuous improvement, which means that the team uses knowledge from previous iterations to enhance the upcoming backlog refinement meeting.
  • Minimized scope creep: regular Agile grooming meetings help the team to manage scope creep (also known as requirement creep or kitchen sink syndrome, describes the unmanaged or ongoing expansion of a project's scope at any stage after its inception) more effectively and prevent project derailment.
  • Clarity: nothing supports teamwork efficiency better than clarity of goals, purposes and priorities. Backlog grooming helps to establish a shared understanding of those project aspects, and helps the team to work more effectively.

With all of these benefits, an Agile team would be foolish not to invest their efforts in backlog grooming. Ultimately, backlog grooming is the engine that drives Agile projects towards success and customer satisfaction.

Signs of an unhealthy backlog

An unhealthy backlog will hinder your project with delays or process inefficiencies because it is poorly managed, disorganized, or inefficiently maintained. Here are some signs that your backlog isn’t getting the attention it deserves: 

Low-value items

Low priority or unnecessary tasks shouldn’t be on the backlog! Don’t make it a dumping ground for whatever inputs you receive from any stakeholder. Backlog items that do not align with the project's objectives or do not bring significant value to the product will only confuse the team. Reconsider them.

Large size 

An unhealthy backlog tends to become bloated with a large number of items that have not been properly prioritized. The volume usually leads to confusion about the importance of tasks, resulting in delays and other unpleasant consequences, like increased costs. 

Stale items 

Do you have items sitting on the backlog for a long time without any progress? That’s definitely a red flag. They may indicate a lack of follow-up, lack of capacity to complete the work, or forgotten tasks that should have been removed a long time ago.

Lack of clarity 

Unclear or poorly defined backlog items will cause trouble. Without proper descriptions, acceptance criteria, etc. you can be surprised with misunderstandings, misaligned efforts and the need to rework.

Unmanaged dependencies 

Do you ever look at task dependencies between backlog items? Neglecting them can lead to serious bottlenecks and delays. Ensure you consider them during the next Agile backlog refinement meeting.

Lack of stakeholder input

An unhealthy backlog might lack feedback and input from stakeholders or end-users, which may eventually lead to misaligned priorities

Lack of Definitions of Done (DoDs) 

Backlog items should have well-defined criteria for when they are considered complete. If there is no clear Definition of Done, it can lead to confusion and disagreements about when a task is ready for release.

Addressing these issues and maintaining a healthy backlog is vital for efficient project management and successful product development. Regularly review and refine the backlog, prioritize items based on value and feasibility, involve stakeholders, and ensure clear communication within the team.

Product backlog vs product roadmap vs sprint roadmap

The product backlog, product roadmap, and sprint roadmap are all part of Agile project management, particularly in Scrum. It’s important not to confuse these three elements, however, since each serves a different purpose and covers a different area of planning. 

To ensure the team operates efficiently, establish a clear distinction between each element’s purpose and the specific items they contain. 


The product backlog is a dynamic and prioritized list of all the features, enhancements, bug fixes, and other work items that are required to build and improve the product. 

It’s a comprehensive repository of all tasks related to the product and the single source of truth for what needs to be done in the project. 

The product backlog is managed and maintained by the product owner, who collaborates with stakeholders, customers, and the development team to populate and refine it.

Product roadmap

The product roadmap outlines the overall vision, goals, and planned milestones for the product over a specific time horizon. It’s a strategic document with a high-level overview of the product's direction. It helps to align the development work (and the backlog!) with business objectives and customer needs.

Sprint roadmap

The sprint roadmap (aka sprint plan or sprint backlog) is a short-term plan for the upcoming sprint – a time-boxed period during which the development team works on a set of predefined items from the backlog. It’s typically created during sprint planning. 

Here's a quick overview of these three elements:

Backlog Product roadmap Sprint roadmap
Purpose to provide a clear overview of all the work that needs to be accomplished during the product development to help stakeholders and team members understand the long-term vision for the product

to communicate the intended direction planned for future releases
to help the team understand what specific tasks and user stories they will work on during the upcoming sprint

to ensure that the team has a clear focus and goal for the next iteration
Scope all the work needed throughout the product's development, from major features to minor bug fixes and improvements major themes, features, or initiatives that are crucial to achieving the product's objectives a selection of items from the product backlog that the team commits to completing within the sprint
Timeframe none – it is continuously updated, refined, and reprioritized usually 6-12 months, subject to periodic review and adjustment as market conditions or business priorities change covers the duration of a single sprint

Product backlog refinement process – a step-by step guide

Ready to become the master at Agile grooming sessions? Here are the steps we always follow:

Step 1: Schedule regular product backlog grooming meetings

It’s critical to plan backlog grooming sessions as part of the team's regular sprint activities! The frequency may vary based on the product's complexity, the size of the team, and the length of the sprint. A common practice is to hold sprint grooming refinement sessions once or twice per sprint. This is essential to ensure the team stays focused on the goals and responds to changing requirements.

Step 2: Assemble the team

Ideally, the entire Scrum team should be involved in the process (product owner, development team, and Scrum Master). Product owner plays a central role in each backlog grooming meeting – it’s their job to present and prioritize the backlog items in cooperation with the rest of the Scrum team.

Step 3: Review the backlog

The initial review is about establishing a shared understanding of the scope of work that needs to be refined and prioritized. To this end, the product owner will list all the backlog items, which may include user stories, bug fixes, technical tasks, and any others. After that, they can focus on the details.

Step 3.1: Clarify backlog items 

This step is an opportunity to resolve any confusion and ensure that all team members have a shared understanding of the requirements. Clear communication between the product owner and the development team is crucial to avoid misunderstandings that can generate issues or slow down development.

Step 3.2: Assess and prioritize 

The team should assess each backlog item with regards to its business value, potential impact on the product's success, and alignment with the overall product roadmap. Consider user needs, market conditions, and the strategic direction of the product to determine the priority of each item. 

There are a number of techniques that can help you with this process: 

  • MoSCoW method, which categorizes backlog items into four groups:
    • must-have: critical features or tasks that are essential for the product's success
    • should-have: important features or tasks that are highly valuable but not critical
    • could-have: desirable features or tasks that can be included if time and resources permit
    • won’t-have: items that won't be addressed in the current scope but may be considered for future releases.
  • Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF), which considers the cost of delay against the size of the backlog items. It involves dividing the business value of each item by its estimated effort to determine the priority.
  • Eisenhower Matrix, which classifies tasks into four quadrants:
    • urgent and important: high-priority tasks that require immediate attention,
    • important but not urgent: tasks that should be prioritized but can be scheduled for later,
    • urgent but not important: tasks that can be delegated to others,
    • not urgent and not important: low-priority tasks that can be dropped altogether or postponed.
  • Value vs. Effort Matrix, which involves plotting backlog items on a 2x2 matrix based on their value and effort:
    • high value, low effort: high-priority items that deliver significant value with minimal effort,
    • high value, high effort: important items that require more effort but still offer considerable value,
    • low value, low effort: items that are less critical and require little effort to complete,
    • low value, high effort: low-priority items that require a significant financial and temporal investment.

Step 3.3: Break down user stories (if needed) 

Do this especially when they become too large or complex to be completed in a single sprint. Breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces during backlog grooming sessions will allow you to make more accurate estimates and plan subsequent delivery.

Step 3.4: Estimate effort 

Next, estimate the effort required to complete each backlog item using hours or story points. To learn more about both estimation approaches, head over to our extremely popular “Story points vs hours” comparison article. 

Step 3.5: Update Definitions of Done

Has anything changed with regards to the acceptance criteria of any of the  backlog items? If so, specify the conditions that must be met for them  to be considered "done." These criteria serve as objective measures to determine when a task has been completed and meets the expectations of the stakeholders.

Step 3.6: Remove obsolete or low-priority items

As the team reviews the backlog, they may identify items that are no longer relevant, have become obsolete, or are of low priority. Feel free to remove them from the backlog or deprioritize to keep the focus on delivering high-value features and improvements.

Step 3.7: Consider dependencies

Take into account dependencies between backlog items. This is essential for effective prioritization that ensures you eliminate the existing or prevent potential bottlenecks. 

Step 3.8: Refine and adjust

Since product backlog grooming is an iterative process, it leaves ample room for further refinements or adjustments. This could involve updating user stories, revising priorities, or reestimating efforts based on new insights or changes in business requirements.

Step 4: Record decisions and updates 

Product owners should document all decisions made during the backlog refinement meeting grooming session:

  • changes to the backlog items,
  • shifts of priorities, 
  • edits of acceptance criteria and DoDs etc.

This ensures transparency, serves as a record for future reference and reduces the risks of misunderstandings.

Step 5: Prepare for sprint planning

By the end of the grooming session, the backlog should be refined and prioritized, ready for the upcoming sprint planning meeting. The items at the top of the backlog are those that the team plans to work on during the next sprint. A well-prepared backlog ensures that the team can make informed decisions during sprint planning, selecting the most valuable and feasible work.

Backlog grooming best practices

To maximize the effectiveness of the product backlog refinement process, always keep the below best practices in mind and use the following as your guiding principles: 

  • Ensure transparency: make the backlog visible to all stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding the product's progress,
  • Be consistent: stick to a regular schedule for grooming sessions to ensure that the backlog is up-to-date at all times,
  • Collaborate with stakeholders: encourage active participation and collaboration among team members, stakeholders, and subject-matter experts during the refinement sessions,
  • Focus on value: prioritize backlog items based on the value they deliver to the customers and the organization,
  • Align with product vision: ensure that backlog items align with the strategic goals and prioritize work so that it contributes directly to the product's success,
  • Keep it Agile: embrace the Agile principles of responding to change and delivering value iteratively.

Backlog grooming process at RST Software

Backlog refinement is a foundational practice in Agile development that promotes collaboration, planning, and adaptability. Maintaining a well-organized and prioritized backlog is written into our product development processes, so that our teams can work with stakeholders effectively, make informed decisions, and deliver valuable increments. 

No matter what type of solution you are building – be it a location based service, a chat application, a mobility solution or an e-commerce platform – we have expert teams available at your disposal who will put the best Agile practices into delivering maximum value.

If you’d like to know more about working with us, just this quick contact form, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

People also ask

What are the pitfalls of neglecting the backlog refinement process?

Neglecting the backlog refinement process can lead to a range of perils and challenges for Agile teams and the overall product development. Here are some of the most significant risks of failing to regularly and effectively conduct backlog refinement:

  • Unclear priorities: Without regular backlog refinement, the priority of items in the product backlog may become unclear or outdated. This ambiguity can lead to the team working on less critical tasks while neglecting essential features, resulting in a misalignment with business goals and customer needs.
  • Inefficient planning: Backlog refinement plays a crucial role in preparing for sprint planning meetings. Without well-prepared and prioritized backlog items, the development team may struggle to make informed decisions about what work to commit to in the upcoming sprint. This can lead to inefficiencies, missed deadlines, and unplanned work.
  • Reduced productivity: A neglected backlog can lead to wasted time and efforts as the team may encounter constant disruptions, changes, and uncertainties during development. This lack of clarity and focus hampers productivity and makes it challenging to achieve consistent and valuable deliverables.
  • Overlooked dependencies: Backlog refinement helps identify the relations between different tasks or user stories. Neglecting this process can result in overlooking critical dependencies, leading to bottlenecks and delays during development.
  • Missed market opportunities: Without regular engagement with stakeholders and customers, valuable market insights and feedback might be missed. This oversight can cause the team to overlook significant opportunities for product improvement and innovation, resulting in a less competitive offering.
  • Low-quality deliverables: Insufficiently refined backlog items can lead to poorly defined requirements and unclear acceptance criteria. As a result, the development team may deliver low-quality software that fails to meet customer expectations.
  • Team frustration: A backlog in disarray and lacking clear priorities can frustrate team members. When the team is uncertain about what needs to be done or struggles with constant changes, their morale and motivation can suffer.
  • Inaccurate estimations: Effective backlog refinement aids in providing accurate estimates for the effort required to complete tasks. Without this process, the team may struggle with time estimation, leading to inaccurate planning and commitments.
  • Missed deadlines: A lack of clarity and focus on the backlog can cause delays and missed deadlines. Without well-prioritized items, it becomes challenging to deliver value in a timely manner.
  • Difficulty in managing scope: A neglected backlog can lead to scope creep, where additional work is introduced without proper evaluation or consideration. This can result in an increase in the project's scope, making it difficult to manage and potentially leading to project overruns.
  • Lack of adaptability: Regular backlog refinement ensures that the team stays adaptable and responsive to changing market conditions, customer needs, and business priorities. Neglecting this process makes it difficult for the team to pivot quickly when required.

In summary, the risks of neglecting the backlog refinement process can severely impact an Agile team's ability to deliver value, meet customer expectations, and remain competitive. By prioritizing and regularly conducting backlog grooming, teams can avoid these pitfalls, maintain a clear focus, and set themselves up for successful and productive development iterations.

Backlog refinement vs. backlog grooming – what are the differences?

Backlog refinement and backlog grooming are two terms that are often used interchangeably in Agile and Scrum environments. While both terms refer to the process of preparing the Product Backlog for future development, there are subtle differences between them.

Backlog Refinement: Backlog refinement, also known as backlog refinement or simply refinement, is a continuous and ongoing process that involves the entire Scrum team. It is typically carried out throughout the Sprint, not limited to any specific event. The primary goal of backlog refinement is to ensure that the Product Backlog is in a good state for the upcoming Sprint Planning meeting. The focus is on clarifying the details of the backlog items and preparing them for development.

During backlog refinement:

  • Collaboration: The Scrum team collaborates to review, clarify, and discuss the backlog items. The Product Owner presents the backlog items, and the Development Team seeks clarification on any uncertainties or ambiguities.
  • Prioritization: The team collectively assesses the backlog items and may update their priorities based on changing requirements, feedback, or market conditions.
  • Estimation: The team estimates the effort required to complete each backlog item, often using techniques like story points or relative sizing.
  • Slicing: If backlog items are too large or complex, the team may discuss and determine how to slice them into smaller, actionable pieces.
  • Refinement Frequency: Backlog refinement is an ongoing activity that is performed regularly, ensuring that the backlog remains relevant and ready for future development.

Backlog Grooming: Scrum backlog grooming is a term that was used in earlier versions of the Scrum Guide but has been deprecated in favor of the term "backlog refinement." The reason for this change was to reduce confusion between the two terms and emphasize that the process is a continuous refinement of the backlog rather than a separate, periodic grooming event.

In summary, the main difference between backlog refinement and backlog grooming is in their terminology. Backlog refinement is the current and more commonly used term to describe the continuous process of preparing the Product Backlog for future Sprints. It involves collaboration, clarification, prioritization, and estimation, and it occurs throughout the Sprint. Backlog grooming, on the other hand, was an older term for the same process but is no longer actively used in Scrum, as the Scrum Guide now emphasizes the concept of continuous backlog refinement.

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