What’s in your Backlog?
November 27, 2018
Let’s explore what you do and do not put in a backlog. How do these sound?
- Features and non-functional requirements – Absolutely
- Bug fixes and change requests – Yes, probably
- Risk avoidance and risk reduction activities – Sure, maybe
- Opportunity exploitation activities and marketing ideas – Now you’re just getting weird!
- Team building and social events – Erm, no!
Yet, if it’s all just stuff for the team to do, then why not put it in the backlog? Maybe because the customer has not asked for it and the product owner has to own and order it, but let’s look further.
If we used a backlog metaphor for prioritizing backlog work items. It may look like this.
I am not suggesting these are the correct elements for including in a backlog, I am just showing the common ones. However, I am probably getting too abstract too quickly. Let’s start at the beginning.
A Backlog Primer
For agile teams, backlogs represent their To-Do list of work. All the things they need to complete before the product or project is done. Now, there may be interim releases. In fact, there should be interim releases delivering valuable functionality as soon as possible. However, there typically remains a list of remaining work. For long-lived products this list may never be emptied by the team, instead it is refreshed and reordered based on the latest priorities.
While the team works from the backlog, it is typically prioritized by a product owner / business representative / ambassador user that sequences the work. This product owner manages the backlog, keeping things up to date with the latest product decisions. They also flesh-out items prior to work starting on them. Product Owners also answers questions about the work from the team, etc.
Here’s a typical backlog showing a combination of features, change requests, bug fixes and a couple of risk reduction activities.
Types not Granularity
This post discusses the types of things in a backlog, not the names we give different levels of granularity. Big chunks of work might be grouped into releases and then divided into themes, or features, epics, user stories and tasks as they get smaller and smaller. There is not an agreed to hierarchy at the large end of the spectrum, often teams miss out one or two of the theme / feature / epic options. However, most teams use the user stories and tasks as work gets smaller.
Nevertheless, this post is about types of work, regardless of their size or what we call them.
Scrum Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs
Your view of a backlog may be different from mine. Most people I meet these days were introduced to backlogs through Scrum.
The Scrum Guide describes the product backlog as an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is also the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product. The guide goes on to describe the sprint backlog as the set of product backlog items selected for the sprint, plus a plan for delivering the product Increment and realizing the sprint goal.
My backlog history goes like this…
“It’s All Just Work We Have to Do”
I was first exposed to backlogs of work in the early 1990s. Working as a developer at Data Sciences Ltd in the UK I wrote a program to manage our work tasks on a government project. My project manager saw it one day and two interesting things happened.
- He did not chastise me for working on a side project of developing a visual work tracker rather than working on the client project.
- He asked why it did not contain all our bug fixes and change requests? I did not have a good answer, other than those are different buckets of work we should track separately. He dismissed this explanation and told me to add a flag if I wanted to track work types separately, and said “It’s all just work we have to do” and walked off, but his insight stuck with me. The class of work is secondary – all this stuff needs to get done.
My visual work tracker was quite limited and I abandoned it. The database connection from Easel (a language better suited to building graphical UIs for mainframe systems) did not support concurrent users well. Yet, a couple of years later when we started creating DSDM I knew the backlog was “Just work we have to do”. The backlog is the input-hopper for team work. The product owner is the input-hopper custodian, often subject matter expert, and settler of priority and compromise disputes / negotiations.
Risks in the Backlog
I have been keen on proactively addressing risks for many years. Just as features deliver value, risks in the form of threats to the project cost money and cause delays - if they occur. As such, these threats are potentials for anti-value. Like bank deposits and bank-fees, the act of adding value and avoiding losses go hand-in-hand to maximize value.
In the late 1990s I used RUP with some clients and was impressed by the Elaboration phase’s goal of tackling risks early in the project lifecycle. I corresponded with Philippe Kruchten, co-author of RUP, about how to illustrate the good work done on risk reduction during Elaboration that often did not have a lot to demo or show for it. I ended up creating Risk Burn Down graphs for my projects. I wrote about these ideas when I started blogging in 2006 as Risk Profile Graphs. By this time I’d been using them for 4-5 years and knew they were well received by sponsors and executives.
Later in 2006, I wrote about risk adjusted backlogs and Agile Risk Management explaining how to insert risk avoidance and risk reduction activities in the backlog. In 2012 I presented some Collaborative Games for Risk Management at the Agile 2012 Conference and PMI Global Conference.
When members of the project management community read these posts and papers they correctly criticized my ignorance around proper risk management terminology. Risks, of course, can be positive (opportunities) or negative (threats). I was only talking about negative, potentially harmful risks (threats) when I talked about inserting risks based activities in the backlog. A real risk-adjusted backlog has both threat avoidance and reduction steps, as well as opportunity exploitation and opportunity enhancement actions.
This is how we got to risk avoidance and opportunity exploitation activities in the backlog. One aims to avoid costs, the other aims to generate new value. Risk management techniques like Expected Monetary Value converts probabilistic events into financial values. For instance, if we have a 50% risk of incurring a $400,000 loss then this event’s expected monetary value is 50% x $400,000 = $200,000.
Likewise, we can assess opportunities too. If the average profit for new customers is $20,000 per annum, then we can determine if inviting qualified applicants on a factory tour with product demos and giveaways that costs us $500 per head is worth it at a 5% conversion rate. Here $20,000 x 0.05 = $1,000, so yes, it appears worth offering factory tours and giveaways for qualified leads.
Multiplying guessed benefits or losses by guessed probabilities is an inexact science. However, it is one that the insurance industry has spent centuries trying to master. So they err in their favor and often price based on what the market will bear. Yet it happens throughout all forms of business and is the basis for taking an economic view of production that underpins all the return on investment and prioritization schemes such as Weighted Shortest Job First. We are constantly looking to maximize value.
So, if a team building lunch is important for boosting performance or reducing the likelihood of conflict and delay, why not put it in the backlog? If it would be helpful for someone to walk the VP of sales through the latest product demo, put it in the backlog.
The Product Owner remains the custodian of the backlog, but with some discussions around threats and opportunities, they often see the advantages of adding these other work types to the backlog. Taking an economic view of work allows us to decide “Where is the next best dollar spent’. That may well be on Feature X or a site visit to help build relationships and increase motivation.