High, Medium and No! Ruthless Prioritization Is the Key to Agile Backlog Health

The product backlog - it is the lifeblood for Product Owners. However, most backlogs need prescription strength laxatives.  In our pursuit to accept a wide range of stakeholder needs and ideas, we often maintain scores of items on our backlog that we never have any intention of delivering. Is there a better way? Yes. The phrase we use around here is “High, medium, and NO!”

Accepting stakeholder ideas and needs feels like the right thing to do…and stakeholder / relationship management increases the pressure to say yes. Items we do not plan on working on right away, we are told, should be added to the backlog to be addressed in the future. Makes sense, right? But you have seen them.  In the backlog priority column, they wear labels such as “Low”, “999”, “Future” or any one of several other disguises. We waste time talking about them in our refinement and planning sessions, or perhaps we filter them out. We will not close out that epic because it still has those 2 stories we may eventually tackle, you know, one day. It takes effort to keep these low-priority items from cluttering the view of things that matter. Furthermore, by maintaining this list of things we will never build, we present a very misleading picture of how much work remains for the team. This illusion of items in the pipeline can throw off budgeting and planning exercises and prevent teams from moving on to higher value work.

The solution is one short but powerful word: No! Think of it as a form of backlog minimalism. There are a variety of things we need/want to build. Those items are high priority and should be treated as such. For more clarity, I always recommend rank-ordering a few sprints’ worth of high priority items just so the whole team can be aligned on the short-term vision. The other items in the backlog are Medium. They are on the road map, but are either not ready to work, or they are not as important as the high priority items. That is it. High and Medium. The other items in the backlog are just like stuffing your undergarments. Sure, it might make you feel better about yourself, but it is deceptive and misleading, and destined to disappoint somebody someday, I promise - Just say No!

“No” is the most powerful tool in the Product Owner’s toolbox. It helps us stay clearly focused on our product mission and vision. It helps us set expectations with our stakeholders. It keeps us from stringing them along waiting for that new feature that never manages to make it into sprint planning, month after month. Being honest with our stakeholders holds true to one of the Agile pillars, transparency. That is not to say it is easy. It is very difficult to tell a stakeholder that his or her idea is great, but we do not plan on implementing it. It is easier to just pretend we might get to it one day. The fact is, it takes a lot more courage to get rid of those things than to keep them around. As a bonus, the more we work to relentlessly clear our backlog of the things we will not build, the clearer our product road map and vision becomes – just say No!

Doug Rosenberg is an Agile Coach and transformation consultant for The Hard Yards, located in Richmond VA. He has worked on or with Agile teams since 2005.