How Product and Sprint Backlogs Drive Working Functionality Early On

Active Bridge
9 min readFeb 15, 2022

Agile project management has grown in popularity significantly over the last ten years, and with good reason. The use of short development cycles called “sprints” perfectly aligns with the fast-paced nature of business in the modern era. Additionally, the drive for better performance, efficiency, and results in a world where approximately 66% of development projects fail, makes agile management methods attractive to most businesses.

However, running a successful agile development project is easier said than done. If you want a smooth project that results in a product that adds value to the business, you need to utilize robust agile methods methodically and deliberately. For example, both Sprint Backlogs and Product Backlogs (which follow the Scrum framework) are essential for development teams to plan their next steps.

So, how do you implement Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs effectively? And how do you ensure they work with you and not against you? Here we’re going to discuss these two backlogs, including their key elements, the best way to create them, and how they can work together for better project development results. Let’s take a look.

Why Use Agile Methodology and Scrum framework?

One of the main reasons agile and Scrum works so well is because not using them can cause a litany of problems — in other words, it’s hard to provide an accurate estimate of unspecified requirements. What do we mean by this? In a traditional project management approach, the team will write a very detailed technical specification before starting development. They will then implement all of the functionality as one big package. While this can work, this approach is fraught with so many risks that often, in practice, it doesn’t work. That’s why here at Active Bridge, we don’t use this “waterfall” style approach. Starting the project with a “big bang,” wherein the first deliverable is at the very end of the project, is far too risky. It often results in a product that is too disconnected and distanced from the real business goals and user needs.

Instead, we use an Agile methodology that relies on the concept of small steps: releasing versions of a working product regularly, as often as possible, and as early as possible. Thus, each iteration is a micro-step in development, immediately validated by practice. This means that the customer receives useful (albeit small) working functionality directly after the first iteration. They can then test and provide immediate feedback for review.

Backlogs are a vital element of this process. Backlog is rooted in agile methodologies, specifically Scrum, which is one of the most widely used Agile methods. At its core, Scrum is a time-fixed, iterative methodology that has several key roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, etc.), artifacts (product backlog, sprint backlog), and ceremonies (sprint planning, daily standups, etc.). Many teams use adaptive planning techniques, like Scrum, to continuously prioritize what to build and when to build it. However, today, it’s becoming increasingly common even for teams that do not follow a strict agile approach to use backlogs for organizing and prioritizing work items.

The added structure and accountability of backlogs make it easy for product managers to quickly prioritize the most critical work. For example, requests for new features and improvements to existing functionality can be added to a backlog and graded based on business value. It can also be helpful to create backlogs for additional planning stages after capturing feature requests.

agile vs waterfall | Active Bridge

What Is Product Backlog Exactly? Product Backlog Explained

If you’ve got to this point in the article, you’re probably most of the way to being convinced that agile methodologies are essential for a successful development project. However, without this missing part of the picture, understanding precisely what Product Backlog in agile actually is, you can’t get all the way there. This is what we’re going to be looking at in this section.

Product Backlog is an orderly and constantly updated list of what is needed to improve a product. Another way to think of it is as a vessel that contains all the known items about the product. It’s not just a simple task list but rather a list with detailed breakdowns of items into a series of steps. Beyond a detailed breakdown, it also includes durations, so the development team knows when to start a task and when it must be completed by. It’s also vital to note that a Product Backlog isn’t set in stone despite being planned out meticulously. As in most agile projects, changes are inevitable, and Product Backlogs allow and encourage this flexibility.

As we touched on in the last section, there are a number of different roles, artifacts, and ceremonies captured within Product Backlog. All of these elements work together to create a functional Product Backlog approach. For a specific insight, let’s look at the role of the Product Owner.

The Product Owner is responsible for effectively managing the Product Backlog, undertaking tasks like:

  • Developing and accurately communicating the Product Goal.
  • Creating and clearly and concisely explaining the Product Backlog.
  • Organizing the Product Backlog and ensuring it is transparent, accessible, and understandable to the team.

The Product Owner can conduct this work themselves or delegate it to other team members. However, the Product Owner remains ultimately responsible for these tasks.

The Product Backlog includes both the technical aspects and functional aspects required for implementation. Additionally, each requirement is prioritized according to business value. The highest priorities are described in detail so that the team can evaluate and test them.

How to Create a More Effective Product Backlog (Our Top Tips!)

Filling Out Your Product Backlog

The Product Backlog is filled using various sources, but it’s essential to know why and how these items ended up on the list. The three key sources are the users (customers), and from the business side, managers and developers. The users bring the most valuable information because they help close the gap between the expectation and reality of the software. Ultimately, it’s the users who have to be happy with and use the product regularly after the project is complete, so their input is paramount.

However, managers and developers also undoubtedly play a crucial role in the creation of the Product Backlog. Business team members often have expertise in the product and valuable insights they can contribute.

Using SMART Goals

Most people well versed in the business world are familiar with the acronym SMART, but let’s have a quick recap for those who haven’t seen it recently. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, T ime-bound, and is a tool used to guide goal setting. Put simply, with SMART, goals become clear and reachable and allow you to focus on the end result.

All well-written Scrum stories or Product Backlog items will follow the SMART approach to ensure you’re not wasting time.

Amending the Backlog as Needed

Once you’ve created the backlog, you must adjust it regularly as the program progresses. For example, Product Owners should review the backlog before each iteration planning meeting to refine the prioritization and make changes based on findings from the last iteration.

Product Backlog Prioritization

With limited time to execute all items, we have to choose the most important tasks to execute first, followed by less important (but still needed) tasks. Several different factors go into backlog prioritization, including business value, complexity, risk/opportunity, cost, and customer satisfaction.

But how do you assign priority? High priority items should be already refined and have great value to the product. Medium or mid-priority items should be candidates for refinement. And low priority items should not be a dependency and can be safely ignored until they are candidates for refinement.

Short and Long Term Tasks

In larger Product Backlogs, product owners also group the items into short-term and long-term tasks.

Short-term tasks need to be worked out thoroughly before they can be given that status (there’s no room for vagueness). To do this, you need to make full-fledged user stories, discuss all the details of joint work with designers and developers, and estimate the complexity of development. Long-term tasks may not be thoroughly thought through, but if the development team gives them a rough estimate, it will help prioritize them. The keyword here is “approximate.” Estimates will change once the team has a complete understanding of the long-term tasks and begins to implement them.

What Is a Sprint Backlog? Sprint Backlog in Agile Explained

The Sprint Backlog in agile is considered a subset of the Product Backlog. The list of items in the Sprint Backlog comes from the Product Backlog but only contains tasks that can be completed during an agile sprint. Another way to think of a Sprint Backlog is marching orders for the team to embark on their next short Sprint.

The items on a Sprint Backlog must be of high value to end-users, and what is ultimately included or not included is centered around the user.

What Does a Sprint Backlog Contain?

  • Sprint planning — Short sprints allow you to release working versions of the product more often and consequently receive valuable feedback and detect errors ahead of time. In contrast, long sprints will enable you to devote more time to problem-solving. The optimal sprint length lies between these two and is around two weeks.
  • Stand-up meetings — The team should hold short meetings (around 15–30 minutes) daily or weekly. The Product Owner, Scrum Master, and all developers should attend. The meeting aims to get answers to three questions: What has been accomplished since the last meeting? What are the plans for today? Are there any obstacles to achieving the goal?
  • Sprint demo — Developers take turns demonstrating the new functionality live and using actual data. The focus is on WHAT we did, not HOW we did it.
  • Sprint Retrospective — The purpose is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness. To achieve this, the team discusses what went well and what could have been improved in the last Sprint, and what to commit to improving in the next Sprint.

How To Design a Better Sprint Backlog (Our Top Tips)

  • Each Sprint should have a clearly defined goal.
  • For the team to be self-organized, we design each Sprint according to a well-defined template: number, sprint goal, sprint backlog with evaluation for each story, team composition, deadlines, daily meeting times, organizational events.
  • Our Sprints are two weeks long (the optimal length for a Sprint). Short Sprints are convenient and allow for much more flexibility. For example, a short Sprint means a short feedback loop which leads to more frequent releases. More frequent releases mean more feedback from customers and less time wasted moving in the wrong direction.
  • Once roles are defined, no one should interfere with the Sprint. Without interference, the team becomes self-organized, self-motivated, autonomous, and highly productive.
  • It’s essential to believe in the power and purpose of daily or weekly stand-ups. They’re not there as an admin tick-in-the-box but as a critical communication tool.
  • We are solely focused on demonstrating working code with real data and getting feedback from real users already working on the system. Anything else is counterproductive.

How the Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog Work Together

To work effectively, the team must have a clear idea of their roles and responsibilities and understand the difference between a Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog.

Experienced product owners take responsibility for maintaining the Product Backlog, ensuring it functions as a collaborative source of work tasks for the project. Additionally, all iterations are planned based on the Product Backlog, so it’s essential it includes all work tasks. These tasks can be user stories, defects, design changes or enhancements, technical debt, customer requests, retrospective actions, and so on. Each member’s work tasks can be reviewed in a general discussion before each iteration using this approach. Team members and the Product Owner can then make decisions with total clarity into the scope of tasks before the iteration starts.

During the planning meeting, the development team should discuss what must be done and how to do it. They can then decide which items from the Product Backlog to move to the Sprint Backlog.

To work effectively with the Sprint Backlog, the team must regularly monitor current tasks’ relevance and adjust flexibly to new information as needed. The Sprint Backlog, like the Product Backlog, is maintained by the Product Owner or Product Manager. However, the development team can share their experiences and opinions on what Backlog elements are worth taking into the current sprint.

Next Steps

By now, you’re all clued up on how to implement Product and Sprint Backlogs! You have the tools you need to follow agile methodology principles in a way that drives results. And you should be able to plan a dynamic and robust development project successfully.

Not done learning? If you want to learn more about agile project management tools, read “What is BDD, and when does this approach really work?”

When creating a Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog, it’s crucial to have the right team and the right tools. If you have questions about building a Scrum team and agile development methodology, our team can help.

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