Backlog Grooming vs Sprint Planning

Backlog Grooming and Sprint Planning are two important activities for Scrum teams. We explore both these activities in detail and bring out the differences between the two.

What is an agile backlog?

The backlog is one of the most important foundational artifacts of the scrum framework. In general, the backlog is a list of work items arranged in decreasing order of priority. Every time a new work item is added to an agile project, it is entered into the backlog by default. It is the product owner’s job to prioritize the backlog and keep it up to date.

What is backlog grooming?

While in theory, backlogs are always prioritised and have only relevant items, practically this is most often not the case. Backlogs often serve as the place to drop all ideas, bugs and feature requests. This leads to the backlog becoming overcrowded, irrelevant and out of control in no time.

Backlog grooming refers to the practice of refining the backlog by selecting the important work items, prioritising them to the top of the backlog and cutting out the unimportant stories and tasks. This practice is important because it helps product owners keep the backlog sane, while making it easy to pick and choose which items to work on when the team is ready to start a sprint.

Who should groom the backlog?

While the sprint planning meeting is an official scrum meeting, there is no compulsion to have a separate meeting to groom the backlog. The backlog is usually groomed by the person responsible for owning and maintaining the backlog. The product owner is generally the best person to groom the backlog as he/she has the best understanding of the product that is being built. This makes sure that the right items are trimmed out and the most important ones are moved up the backlog.

In addition to the product owner, an engineering leader or manager could be present for a backlog grooming meeting as they add a much needed technical perspective towards estimating and prioritizing items or cutting items from the backlog. In this type of grooming session, the product owner acts as a facilitator of the grooming meeting.

How to groom an agile backlog?

There are a few important activities that have to be done while grooming a backlog:

  1. Eliminate unwanted user stories as these take up space. User stories that aren’t going to be selected in the near future make it harder to manage the backlog and plan sprints. These may be stories that may not fit the current product direction and the product owner could take the call to trim them out of the backlog.
  2. Another important task is to reprioritize stories to move lower priority items to the bottom of the backlog. This ensures that the important items that are next up have maximum visibility right at the top.
  3. Break down large work items into smaller ones. This helps ensure that it is easier for the team to estimate and later prioritize items. It is very hard to accurately estimate how long a feature may take unless it is broken down into subsequent stories and tasks.
  4. Update estimates if needed with the help of the development lead or team.
  5. Add new work items in case there are features or tasks that you may want to work on in the future.

The total duration of the backlog grooming sessions should not exceed 5-10% of the sprint duration. For instance, if the sprint is 10 days long, the grooming session should be a day long at most.

Having a fully groomed backlog helps make sprint planning meetings more productive as the team has all the data they need at their fingertips.

What is the sprint planning meeting?

The sprint planning meeting is an official scrum ceremony where the development team meets with the product owner and the scrum master to put together the action plan for the sprint. As discussed earlier, it is essential to have a groomed backlog available for the team to help aid the team during the sprint planning meeting.

The sprint planning meeting is usually conducted by the scrum master with the development team and the product owner in attendance. The agenda is to fit as much work as possible into the sprint, with the aim of  completing a working component at the end of the sprint.

Conducting a sprint planning meeting

The following are the activities that take place in the sprint planning meeting:

  1. Decide the sprint dates and duration if needed: Generally teams tend to follow a set pattern when it comes to sprint durations. If however change is deemed necessary, the sprint planning meeting is the place where these changes are implemented.
  2. Check priorities and move the correct items from the backlog to the sprint: This is the most important and potentially tricky aspect of planning a sprint. While it is important to get as much work done as possible, it is also important to have a product or component that is usable during the demo. This is one of the most important principles of the scrum framework.
  3. Agree on metrics to track during the sprint and finalize roles and responsibilities: This step is often overlooked and leads to ineffective sprints and missed targets. It is important to have everyone on the same page to setup and track metrics for the sprint.
  4. Decide on a demo date and and agree on what the deliverables for the demo are: This is another step that is often overlooked. An important aspect of scrum is to have a demo at the end of every sprint to demonstrate what the team has built. This not only helps the team build the right features but also helps gather valuable feedback and make changes in the product direction if needed.

Backlog grooming sessions are an important part of the agile software development process with scrum. These sessions help trim and maintain the backlog to keep it in the best possible shape for sprint planning. This is done by removing unimportant items, moving down low priority items and bringing the most important work to the top of the backlog. Having a trimmed and well maintained backlog helps the development team be more productive during the sprint planning meeting where they can work towards moving the most important items to the upcoming sprint.

Well groomed backlogs are essential for effective sprint planning meetings. Effective sprint planning meetings can lead to increased productivity during sprints and better outcomes at the end of sprints. Teams must strive to master the arts of both backlog grooming and sprint planning to reap the full benefits of the scrum framework.

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