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Backlog Grooming: Scrum’s Red Headed Stepchild

Backlog grooming differentiates good scrum teams from ones that are just scraping by. Viewed by some people as optional, there is often a temptation to skip it in favor of remaining focused on the current sprint. Experienced teams understand that backlog grooming can have an impact not just on the next sprint planning meeting but on the extent to what they build meets user needs.

What is backlog grooming?
The team reviews stories or epics in the backlog to be done in future sprints. The Product Owner (PO) explains the stories, the team asks questions, and additional story information may be captured as a result of the conversation. The PO may leave the meeting needing to gather additional information from users or customers about the story. The team may identify research spikes needed to understand the technical approach for the story. Typically the focus is on stories for the next sprint, but if those are well enough understood the focus may be on stories or epics further down in the backlog. The team may also adjust the sizing of stories based on what they learn during grooming. Large stories may be split into smaller ones, especially if they are going to be in the next sprint.

Note that backlog grooming can also be called “backlog refactoring”. My personal preference is to avoid the term “refactoring” because in some organizations new to agile, “refactoring” is still a dirty word associated with something that needs to be reworked because it was not done correctly the first time.

Why is it important to do on a regular basis?
I once worked with a Scrum team that literally took an entire week to finish a sprint plan. The team did zero backlog grooming. The sprint planning meetings were a combination of the PO identifying new user stories, the team members asking questions, delays while the PO sought answers, and delays while the team researched the feasibility of certain options. The end result was stories and sprint plans full of vagaries and risk. Contrast this with a team that does backlog grooming on a regular basis. Questions surface during the discussion and those questions are either answered immediately or the PO and team have time to research the answers. By the time sprint planning rolls around, most of sprint planning is about HOW the team will build it and not WHAT they are supposed to build. The PO and team can create a sprint plan to which they can commit.

How often should backlog grooming by done?
Backlog grooming should be a weekly meeting. Each meeting should be at least one hour long. A rule of thumb is never to do backlog grooming on the first or last day of a sprint. One the first day of the sprint the team is eager to get rolling the new sprint’s stories; on the last day of the sprint they may be focused on finishing off the last few sprint items. The last thing we want is for grooming to be perceived as getting in the way of the team’s success. Also, a few days may be needed after grooming to get answers to questions.

For a team that runs two week sprints starting on a Monday and ending on Friday, every Wednesday would be a perfect day for backlog grooming.

Who attends backlog grooming meetings?
The Product Owner, the Scrum Master, everyone on the team, and business representatives as needed. It is key for all of the scrum team members to attend so that they all have a good understanding and commitment to each story. Because a story is partly what is written down and partly a conversation, team members cannot expect to skip grooming and then catch up by reading the stories.

What is the PO’s role in backlog grooming?
The Product Owner’s role in backlog grooming starts before the actual meeting. The PO ensures the story prioritizations in the backlog are correct so that they know what stories will be groomed. They add acceptance criteria or user acceptance test cases to stories as appropriate, depending on how soon each story will be pulled into a sprint. While these are basic PO responsibilities, they are sometimes overlooked or ignored because of customer meetings, management presentations, etc. Regularly-scheduled grooming meetings are a great way for the PO to establish a personal cadence of prepping stories for backlog grooming.

A few days before backlog grooming, the PO tells the team which stories will be covered in the upcoming grooming meeting. This gives team members a chance to take a look at the stories ahead of time and either start thinking about the stories and possibly come prepared with questions.

The PO typically runs the grooming meeting.

What is the Scrum Master’s role in backlog grooming?
The Scrum Master can help out the PO by scheduling the meeting and taking care of meeting logistics. More importantly, the SM can ensures that the PO is on top of the backlog prioritization and knows what will be groomed. As a Scrum Master, I worked with a PO who was chronically ill-prepared for backlog grooming meetings. I addressed this via pre-meetings with her a few days before backlog grooming to help her get into the habit of prepping the backlog for grooming.

What is the team’s job in backlog grooming?
If possible, team members take a look at the stories to be groomed before the actual meeting. In the meeting, they seek to understand the requirements by discussing and asking questions. The PO may provide 50% of the story content before the grooming session. Good discussions will round out the acceptance criteria as the team and PO look at the story from different perspectives.

Reflections

  • Backlog grooming is an essential activity. Resist the temptation to skip it.
  • Schedule grooming meetings so that they fit In the middle of the weeks of the sprint.
  • The entire team should be involved in grooming.
  • Regular backlog grooming helps the PO establish a cadence for working on stories.

Getting Started with Story Points

A mature agile team intuitively knows what a story point means in terms of the relative size of a user story compared to other stories that it has sized in the past, but how does a new team that perhaps even has people who are new to agile get started with story points? As I mentioned in another blog post, Ideal Days is a story point estimation scale that blends size with effort and degrades the backlog sizing process into a drawn-out time estimation exercise. Given that a points scale like the Fibonacci sequence that relates more to size/complexity is preferred, how does a team get started when it does not have a baseline story against which to do relative sizing?

A few things should be in place to set the stage for establishing a baseline story:

  1. Definition of Done. This should include quality assurance and user testing.
  2. Sprint length. Should be no longer than two weeks.
  3. Understanding by the team that high throughput is achieved via low work in process, i.e. having a small number of user stories in flight (being worked on and not at ‘done’) in a sprint.

Once there is a set of stories in the backlog that are small enough to pull into a sprint, the next step is to discuss and assign story points. In asking the team to assign story points for the first time, I usually tell them something like this:

Team, we know that in order to meet our sprint goals we need to get the first story in this sprint coded, unit tested, and into QA by the second or third day of the sprint. Let’s call that a three point story.

With that in mind, the team sizes the first few stories. Some might argue that we are just using Ideal Days. We are not, because executing and supporting the QA and user testing efforts are not included in the goal of getting the story to QA by the second or third day of the sprint. The other reason we are not using Ideal Days is because we only use this method for sizing the first couple of stories in the backlog. After that, all estimations are done relative to those first couple of stories that were sized, by asking whether or not a story feels bigger or smaller than those stories.

Reflections:

  •  Establish the Defintion of Done, sprint length, and concept of high throughput via low work in process before sizing stories.
  •  Size stories with the goal of getting the first story into QA within the first few days of the sprint.

Story Points or Ideal Days?

Fibonacci CardsSizing user stories is a key part of understanding the overall effort required to create a product release. Getting started is simple: pick a baseline story and assign a number of Story Points or Ideal Days that it will take to complete the story. Next, look at other stories in the backlog and decide whether or not they are bigger or smaller than the baseline story and by how much. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Developers coming from waterfall teams are accustomed to doing time-based estimates. Junior or intermediate level developers were usually asked to estimate functionality that was well-understood and broken down into small units of work. But in waterfall efforts, sizings done during project inception were probably done using a high-level estimation technique such as function points by a more senior analyst, lead and/or architect. Agile user stories are not necessarily well-defined or split into small stories the first time that they are sized (they will be by the time they are brought into a sprint plan). Because of this legacy of thinking in terms of hours to build, developers often revert to using a time-based estimation technique when trying to size user stories.

Before we go any further, some quick definitions:

Story points: a points scale (possibly using the Fibonacci sequence – 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,etc.) that indicates the size of a story relative to a baseline story.

Ideal days: the number of days of effort that it would take the team to get a story done if the team worked with no interruptions.

Once the team has sized the baseline story, it is ready to start comparing other stories to it and assigning points to them. But along the way, developers may develop an ‘algorithm’ for assigning Story Points. You know they have done this when one of them says, “I think that story will take 8 hours, so it’s a two-pointer.” What is happening is that the developer is doing a time estimate of their effort and reverse-engineering the story points rather than sizing the story relative to other stories. This is when the ScrumMaster needs to remind the team about the goal of sizing stories and why Story Points are a better approach than a time-based estimation approach.

Story Points are for sizing, not for time estimation. This allows teams to:

  1. Quickly size features and create a release plan without getting bogged down in implementation details. Team members are often very reluctant to provide time estimates unless they have all of the details about a feature. Being agile means that it is okay not to have all of the details up front. Developers typically are more comfortable saying that Feature B is twice as big as Feature A knowing that they won’t be held to a specific time estimate.
  2. Use Story Points in conjunction with the team’s velocity to make delivery date projections that are not as prone to decay as those using story-level time estimates. Relative sizings based on Story Points are usually fairly stable; estimates based on time can change dramatically as a project unfolds. In conjunction with Story Points, velocity is a reflection the team’s productivity and expertise. This is much easier and more flexible than trying to bake size, effort, productivity, and expertise into one ideal days number for each story.
  3. Create sizings that include all of the effort to get a story to ‘done’. Story Points include development hours, user interaction design, QA testing, etc.
  4. Prevent stakeholders from using Ideal Days estimates to calculate unrealistic delivery dates which are then mandated to the team. It is not their call how many hours per day the team spends actually working on user stories. They do not have a sense of how the mix of skills on the team or other factors will impact productivity. It is up to the team to determine how much time it can spend working on stories, and how much time it needs for grooming the backlog, doing production support, etc.

Reflections

  • The team should size the backlog without having deep, detailed requirements conversations.
  • Story Points are a way to size features without having to calculate how much time it will take to do the work.
  • Story Points are less prone to decay than Ideal Days.

Introducing Scrum to a Team

GoFor a Scrum Master introducing agile to a team, there is a balance between implementing concepts and practices at a pace that does not overwhelm the team and demonstrating the benefits as early as possible to build momentum and support within the organization.

Each situation is different, but let’s assume that an organization wants to use Scrum and there is an experienced Scrum Master who has been asked to lead a team of people that are experienced with waterfall approaches and are new to agile. Also assume a reasonable level of management support. How should the Scrum Master go about implementing agile practices on the team? For an experienced agile practitioner, the practices are second nature so it can be tempting to try to introduce it all at once, but the reality is that it must be gradually introduced in bite-sized chunks. The key question is which practices should be introduced first and which practices must be implemented in the longer term? Here are some suggestions:

Groundwork

Before starting the first sprint, there are some things that need to be put in place:

  1. Secure a Product Owner (PO). In many organizations this might be a product manager or representative from a business unit. This requires a serious time commitment and product insight so it should not be an afterthought.
  2. Secure a team where the people will be dedicated just to this team, rather than juggling several different projects at once. This can be a big shift for organizations accustomed to managing project assignments via resource utilization/optimization models tied to specific skillsets.
  3. Educate the team (including the Product Owner) about agile principles and Scrum. Hiring a Scrum trainer to conduct a two or three day course is ideal, but if lead time or budgets do not allow this, prepare an overview that touches on the agile principles as well as the mechanisms and ceremonies of scrum. The Scrum Reference Card and Build Your Own Scrum  are good tools to facilitate this.
  4. Be careful in comparing agile to waterfall. Disparaging waterfall will not endear agile to people who have delivered successfully using waterfall.
  5. The new PO will require additional training about what the role involves.  If they were a product manager accustomed to working with a project manager (PM), they will need to understand the additional responsibilities that get transferred from the PM to the PO. To get them started, help them understand that they will need to work with the team on a daily basis.
  6. Change the team’s physical workspace to foster improved collaboration.  Sometimes it is as simple as taking down a few cubicle walls. Other times, it involves locating people in the same area if they are spread out around the building. Be thoughtful about this. Done wrong, too many people are jammed into a small area and they can’t move around without bumping into each other. This builds frustration and resentment that leads people to resist and question the approach that brought this change. Also, an area with plenty of wall space is best.
  7. Pick an iteration length. Start short so that the team can get used to the different ceremonies and rapidly learn from its experiences. This also quickly gives the team and the organization a feel for what happens before/during/after an iteration.
  8. Populate the initial product backlog:
    • Conduct a story writing workshop. Utilize a technique such as story mapping to organize the stories. Don’t get hung up on teaching story mapping techniques – just do it by organizing stories that way on the wall. It will actually be very intuitive to people who are accustomed to structured analysis techniques. A big challenge here will be in writing the stories. If a work breakdown structure (WBS) exists as a result of the initial business case or previous project planning that was done before deciding to use agile, it may be possible to use it as a starting point for populating the product backlog.  This depends on the extent to which the WBS aligns with product features vs. technical tasks.  The more aligned it is with features, the easier it is to translate. This is an opportunity to reinforce that product backlog items are features and not tasks. Also, team members may correlate this to the design phase of a waterfall project. The focus needs to be on “what” the requirements are and not “how” they will be implemented. Stories need to be written in just enough detail for sizing, not with detailed requirements.
    •  Get the PO to prioritize the backlog by business value. Don’t be surprised if every item is given a priority of ‘1’ the first time around.
    • Create a Definition of Done. This provides the basis for sizing stories. This should include user acceptance testing (avoid the use of “done” and “done done” at all costs!). This will be challenging for a team accustomed to a UAT phase after long design and development phases. Doing this reinforces that the team should write stories that represent testable feature increments rather than individual technical layers of the application.
    • Conduct a planning poker session where the team sizes an initial set of backlog items using story points. This can be a big change for teams accustomed to having senior team members provide the estimates. During this process, the Scrum Master needs to make sure all voices on the team are heard.  Planning poker is ideal way to do this. The Scrum Master solicits input from all team members, especially when there are significant differences in estimates. So that the team does not feel as though it needs to define every last detail of each story, help team understand that this is not the last time these stories will be discussed; detailed requirements will be covered in depth once the sprint starts.
    • This next step depends on the project and organization.  If the organization views the project as an agile incubator, the team might have the leeway not to commit to an overall release plan for the product until a few sprints have been completed and the velocity is understood. If not, you may need to use an old project planning approach to derive a delivery date to satisfy the organization until a release plan can be formulated. Be very careful about providing enough buffer for unknowns – any dates that are published may become the benchmark against which success or failure of the effort will be measured. If possible, characterize any release dates as preliminary until the team has had a chance to run a few sprints.

The First Sprint

  1. Plan the sprint.
    • Set firm start and end dates for sprint. Go with either a 1 or 2 week sprint. A 3 or 4 week sprint length is not recommended because it is harder to convince PO not to change the contents of a sprint if it is longer. Also, longer sprints involve larger numbers of stories for a larger team, which can be difficult for them to manage. A shorter sprint length allows the team to demonstrate results quickly.
    • Calculate the team’s hours of capacity to do work on user stories during the sprint, factoring in sprint length, time for meetings, vacation time, etc.
    • Conduct the sprint planning meeting. The first part should involve the development team and the PO. Review the user stories on the backlog starting with the highest priority items. The team should ask the PO any questions they need to help them understand how to task out each story. The PO can stay for second part if they want. Create tasks for each story. Make tasks granular enough (max 6-8 hours) so that it will be easy to have multiple people working on each story. Continue to add stories until team’s hours of capacity for the sprint are used up.
    • Ask everyone on the team if they are comfortable committing to delivering these stories in the timeframe of the sprint and if they have any concerns or reservations.  Go around the table and ask each person – it can reveal some insights that people might not otherwise volunteer.
  1. Set up a story/task board in the team area. Even though the team might have software for sprint planning, go with high-visibility, tactile information radiators. This is important because it helps the team learn that it needs to be self-organizing/self-assigning. The team should update the board throughout the sprint, not the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master needs to change culture of having the project plan buried in project planning software like MS Project and only being maintained by the PM. This also starts to build culture of transparency with stakeholders. Invite stakeholders to visit the team’s work area to view status of current iteration. Of course, be careful that they don’t interfere by trying to change priorities or introduce new stories.
  2. Start the first sprint.
  3. Do daily standups. Start by helping team understand the purpose and the basics.
  4. Some people on the team may have heard the agile myth about “no documentation”. This is the time to start establishing culture of lean, maintainable documentation that has value through the lifetime of the product. A new team will only be able to bite off so much new stuff at one time. If they are accustomed to some type of UX or use case document, use that artifact (during the first sprint) as a transition into user acceptance test cases.
  5. Coach team members that the first thing that they need to do when they pick up a new user story to work on is to get with the PO and applicable users to discuss detailed requirements (since the team didn’t hammer out every last detail of the story during grooming or planning, right?). Reinforce with the PO that they need to be prepared to work with team members on a daily basis.
  6. While the Scrum Master’s eventual goal is a team that limits WIP and individuals self-assign tasks, don’t necessarily expect that to happen in the first sprint. Remember – people on the team are probably accustomed to having their tasks assigned to them by the PM or tech lead via project plans.  Initially, the Scrum Master may need to ask for volunteers for tasks, or as team members report that they are wrapping up a task, the Scrum Master may need to ask them which task they will work on next. Team member will typically look at the next available story that no one is working on. Steer them instead to first look for tasks they can work on for stories that are already underway but not yet complete.
  7. Start tracking the team’s burn down and post in the team work area.
  8. Run interference if the PO or other business stakeholders try to change the stories in the sprint. This is another reason to keep sprints short (max 2 weeks) at first. It is easier to argue against changing the contents of a sprint when the next sprint is less than 2 week away.
  9. Conclude the sprint on the planned end date.  DO NOT extend the sprint under any circumstances, even if it will take ‘just one more day’ to finish all of the stories. It is important to establish this early as it speaks to the sprint commitment being firm and the importance of sizing/organizing the work so that it can be completed within the iteration.
  10. Do the retrospective.  Keep the format simple initially. “What went well, what did not go well, ideas for improvement” is an easy format. Do not allow anyone from outside the team to attend. Make sure the PO attends because they are part of the team and this meeting is an important way to build trust between the PO and the developers. Ensure attendees know that the Vegas rule applies. At the conclusion of the retrospective ask attendees if it is okay to share ideas that were generated with outsiders – stakeholders will naturally be curious.  Ideas that the team does not want to share are not shared outside the team.
  11. In preparation for the sprint review, prepare a sprint summary document.  Show the team’s burn down, stories committed and status of each story at end of sprint.
  12. Conduct the sprint review. Encourage as many people from around the organization to attend as possible. This is about
    • Demonstrating results
    • Team members taking pride in their work by showing it off
    • Showing the organization that the team is transparent

The development team members (developers, QA people, etc.) should conduct the demos.

The mechanics of the first sprint described above are relatively straightforward, but the reality is that this is all occurring against the backdrop of organizational change:

  • Team members are experiencing dramatic change.  Their physical work area has changed. They are being asked to commit to delivering something without detailed specifications. No one is telling them which tasks to work on.
  • The relationship between business and IT may be very different when using an agile approach. If the PO comes from a business unit and because of the organization’s culture there exists a lack of trust or poor communication between the business unit and IT, the lack of trust and communication issues will not necessarily disappear overnight.
  • The organization’s culture may not value or emphasize teamwork. Part of management and the Scrum Master’s jobs is to build a culture where teamwork is highly valued.

The Second Sprint

In the second sprint, the Scrum Master continues to emphasize agile principles and the mechanisms of Scrum.

  1. The Scrum Master continues to coach regarding self-assignment of tasks. As the Scrum Master backs away a little bit and the team starts to self-organize, others (such as the PO) may feel that the team needs to be directed and step in to direct the team and tell them what to do.  The Scrum Master must also coach them not to direct the team.
  2. The Scrum Master continues to encourage team members to swarm on stories by default rather than only when necessary. Lessons learned from first sprint (e.g. too many stories in progress at the same time) make the purpose of this apparent.  Swarming will not happen overnight, but the Scrum Master needs to keep encouraging it.
  3. Conduct user story grooming meetings during the sprint. In the meetings, continue the mantra of discussing features at “the right level of detail at the right point in time.” Use these meetings to size out the rest of the backlog and to revisit stories likely to be worked on in the next sprint. The product owner may be unprepared for these meetings because they are already overwhelmed by working with the team on the current sprint’s user stories. Sometimes it helps for the Scrum Master to meet separately with the product owner a day or two before a grooming meeting to survey the backlog and discuss the next set of stories to be groomed.
  4. Encourage the PO to regularly tend to the backlog – not just before grooming or planning meetings.
  5. Using the team’s velocity from the first sprint, begin working with the product owner to formulate the release plan. It may not be appropriate to go public with it yet. Velocity cannot necessarily be trusted after just one sprint, but doing a preliminary release plan is valuable to get the PO thinking in terms of using the velocity and backlog to formulate a plan.
  6. Start tracking the team’s burn up and also post in the team work area.  The burn up emphasizes that hours worked do not provide business value, only completed user stories do. A graph that shows a steady burn up of completed story points during the sprint (rather than a ”hockey stick” where most of the stories get closed at/near the end of the sprint) is the goal. Don’t necessarily beat the team over the head with this…at this point just introduce it to them and call attention to each story as it is closed during the sprint.

Beyond

Over subsequent sprints, the Scrum Master should consider introducing some of the following techniques.  Of course each situation is unique so he/she will have to gauge whether or not the team is ready for each new practice.

  • For teams that are having trouble swarming and have too many stories in progress at the same time, reinforce the concept of WIP limits.  For teams that already have a task/scrum board with steps in the process laid out, the WIP limits can easily be established for each step. The team can decide whether they are firm limits not to be exceeded or soft limits that are triggers for conversations.
  • Help the team learn the finer points of writing user stories. A book study (e.g. “User Stories Applied” by Mike Cohn) is a good way to do this. Be sure to include the PO in this.
  • Test-Driven Development (TDD).  The benefits of this can be difficult for a team to grasp. Once the team (including the Product Owner) understands that it is okay to refactor and that it is simply part of progressive elaboration, the benefits of TDD become much more apparent.
  • Acceptance Test Driven Development, manual or automated.
  • Introduce additional retrospective techniques to help the team learn about itself and identify areas for growth. The Scrum Master will need to judge what type of retrospective is appropriate depending on how the sprint went.

In addition to learning new practices, the team overall needs to learn to be agile, not just to use agile practices.

  • Work with team members’ managers to help them develop a broader, t-shaped skillset that allows them to perform a larger variety of technical and non-technical tasks.  For specialists, this can be a big shift.
  • Help the team to develop an agile mindset by only learning enough about a feature to size and plan it and then really dig into the details of it once it has been pulled into a sprint. One of the most gratifying moments for a Scrum Master can be when the PO says, “We did not think of that aspect of the feature in when we discussed the story. We will just create a new story and handle it in the next sprint” – without taking the team to task for not delivering it in the current sprint.
  • When the Scrum Master has been steering the team towards new practices but the team has resisted using them, the Scrum Master may need to let the team fail for a sprint. The Scrum Master needs to help stakeholders understand that this is part of the learning process, and two-week sprints will minimize most of the damage if the team gets off-track.

Reflections

  • Every situation is different so of course there is no “one size fits all” approach to starting with agile. Organization and team dynamics impact the speed and extent to which agile is adopted.
  • As the team becomes more comfortable with the agile approach, the Scrum Master should adapt his/her approach to be in more of a supporting role for the team.
  • Occasionally the team will forget lessons learned from a few sprints ago and revert to old habits.  The Scrum Master can bring previous retrospective conversations back into focus to help the team avoid making the same mistakes.