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The Importance of the Product Owner and the Product Backlog

Agile is an effective software development framework.   Teams using Agile deliver value in short, iterative, increments.  The starting point of the delivery cycle is the Product Backlog.

The Backlogis the single, prioritized list of everything wanted for the product, including:

  • New business or user features;
  • Enhancements to existing functionality;
  • Technology updates and upgrades; and
  • Fixes to the application. 

The Product Owneris responsible for working with all of stakeholders to build and maintain the backlog.  The backlog is emergent, which means that new items are routinely added.  The ranking is regularly reviewed to ensure it reflects current priorities and needs.

Items at the top of the Product Backlog should be “ready” to be worked.  This usually means the items are well understood, small enough to be completed in one development cycle, and have acceptance criteria. 

The Backlog is foundational because it is the sole source of the Team’s work.  Often, Teams experiencing problems can trace the root cause to poor backlog management practices; for example:

  • There is not a single Product Backlog.  This creates a lack of transparency and visibility into the upcoming work;
  • The list is not prioritized which means that the most important things are not done next;
  • There is not alignment between the organization’s strategic priorities and the Backlog; or 
  • Items have not been adequately “groomed” by the Team and do not meet the definition of “ready”.

When the Backlog is poorly managed, the Team spends precious development time analyzing rather than creating value.  This leads to the team missing delivery commitments, and frustrated stakeholders and Team members.

Below are some considerations and suggestions to build strong product management practice for your Agile Team:

Select the Right Product Owner

The Product Owner plays a critical role.  The Product Owner represents the interests of all stakeholders.  She coalesces these interests into a coherent product vision.  This vision is then translated into a Roadmap that is a time-phased plan for achieving these goals. 

The Product Owner is responsible for setting the Team’s priorities and managing the value they generate. She also has the tactical responsibility of ensuring that the Team understands the Backlog and that the output meets expectations. 

Successful Product Owners generally have a mix of subject matter expertise, vision, and political skills.  They are often senior people within the enterprise.  Dedicating someone with this background is sometimes challenging.  This person may be a manager or key resource on a business team; or they may be needed on multiple projects. 

Finding the right resource and dedicating them to the role is critical.  The organizations should consider how candidates have demonstrated the ability to:

  • Establish a vision, build a roadmap, and sustain commitment to those objectives;
  • Effectively manage stakeholder coalitions and build a product roadmap that balances these interests; and
  • Understand how the details connect to the big-picture.

Empower the Product Owner

The Product Owner must be endowed with the formal power to manage the Backlog for the organization.  This may seem obvious, but I have observed many situations where the Product Owner neither has the formal or informal power to build and maintain the Backlog. 

For example, there may be a struggle between the business and technology owners of the application.   Technology upgrades or other non-functional requirements are maintained outside the Backlog.  Or, there may be multiple business organizations that refuse to cede power and control to the Product Owner. 

In these cases, there may be several “backlogs;” none of which are visible or transparent.  The Team is confronted with conflicting demands and priorities.  Without a rank ordered list, it is unlikely the team will be maximizing the value it generates.

Endowing the Product Owner with the formal power to manage the Backlog may be difficult.  It may require challenging existing power structures or dismantling organizational silos.  It can also irritate executives that want to champion their own pet projects.  However, for Agile to be truly successful, these changes are necessary. 

Build a Single Rank Ordered Backlog

The Product Backlog should be comprehensive and prioritized in rank order.  This ordering should be transparent and visible to all.  Everyone should know what the team is working on next.  All features, capabilities, functional and non-functional requirements, fixes, etc. should be in the Backlog. 

Many organizations have multiple backlogs. Different business stakeholder groups may maintain their own enhancement lists.  Defects and enhancement requests may be recorded in the quality management system.  Technical debt or mandatory upgrades may be maintained separately. Lists may be scattered across the environment; some may be in Rally or JIRA, spreadsheets, or notes taped to the side of the computer.

Items on the Backlog should have a clear description, an order, and an estimate of their value and size.  Items at the top of he list should be more specific and detailed than those at the bottom.  Agile offers many wonderful techniques for rapidly disaggregating items and estimating their value and size.

Groom the Backlog

The product backlog needs to be groomed regularly.  The backlog needs to be reviewed externally and internally.  The external review is with the customers and stakeholders.  The internal review is with the Team. 

In the external review, the Product Owner should ensure that the items match the current priorities.  New items may be added to the list.  Items no longer needed, should be removed.  The order can be adjusted to ensure the most important items are worked next. 

The Product Owner and Team should plan two to three sprints ahead.  “The Scrum Guide” recommends that 10% of capacity be dedicated to grooming.  Items slated for the next sprint should meet the Team's definition of "ready." Progressive elaboration techniques should be used to decompose and refine items slated for future iterations or releases. 

The Team establishes its definition of “ready” to ensure that items coming can be completed within the iteration cycle.  Establishing these criteria helps ensure the Team’s success and protects it from taking on work that is not well defined.

Grooming items further down the list allows the team to refine the stories beforehand. The Product Owner may need to further clarify feature or capability requirement.  The Team may need to conduct analysis or research before they are ready to develop that functionality.  They may create Spike storiesfor this exploration. 

One of my clients had built a several week analysis step at the beginning of each release cycle.  By regularly grooming the backlog and clarifying expectations and analyzing the work up-front the team was able to eliminate that waterfall step from its process.

The Product Owner plays one critical role in the Scrum process.  She sets the cadence for the Team by ordering and maintaining the Product Backlog.  The Backlog becomes he roadmap for maximizing the value delivered by the Team. Successful organizations take the time and effort to invest in the Product Owner and the Backlog. 

© 2017, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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Agile Alliance. (n.d.).

Scaled Agile Framework. (n.d.).

Scrum Alliance. (n.d.).

The Scrum Guide (2001) by Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland

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