Agile sprint backlog: a guide to optimal sprint planning

Sprint backlogs in agile methodology are a core area of backlog management that every scrum master, engineer and product manager must grasp.

In the world of agile, maintaining a well-groomed backlog is a requirement for effective sprint planning. When your backlog isn’t groomed frequently, you can end up focusing on the wrong priorities, eventually steering your team away from driving customer value.

So, how do you keep a healthy backlog and keep your team on track? Read on to learn more about the art of sprint backlog management and tips on how to groom your backlog for optimal sprint velocity.

One of the most common methods is by keeping your backlog up-to-date (also known as grooming) which in turn ensures you’re always focusing on the right priorities and delivering the right features to your customer.

While keeping your backlog groomed can seem like a time-consuming venture, it doesn’t have to be. 

Here are our top tips on how to prioritize your agile sprint backlog and keep it optimized for customer value delivery- from our experience learning and practicing scrum ✅

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Definition of a Sprint Backlog

Agile Alliance defines the sprint backlog as, “a list of the new features, changes to existing features, bug fixes, infrastructure changes or other activities” that a team may deliver within a sprint.

Think of it as a massive to-do list that covers every feature, change, fix, or activity that your team needs to accomplish within a sprint duration. 

Your backlog acts as a living list of work that’s messy and unorganized. The work residing in a backlog doesn’t have a set priority, size or any meaning until a member or manager on your team adds the missing context to it.

Eventually as more context is added to incoming tickets on your backlog, it becomes more evident on who the work should be assigned to, how it needs to be prioritized and most of all, where on your roadmap does it align with.

The most trivial method of organizing your sprint backlog is to have the most important, highest priority items at the top, so your team knows what to tackle first. 

The items near the top should be fully fleshed out, so requirements are clear. But, we recommend not worrying too much about fleshing out the longer-term items right away. 

As more details becomes apparent, items move up the list. The main importance lies in getting enough information so that you can prioritize the features to the best of your ability within the constraints of time, effort and people. 

tasks in sprint backlog

How to Prioritize Your Sprint Backlog

We previously covered the importance of prioritization in order to maintain a well groomed sprint backlog. In order to keep product and engineering priorities in sync, it is very important that agile software development teams groom their backlog frequently. 

In order to create harmony and drive decisiveness in a software development team, we must not only follow the planning rituals like sprint planning meetings and sprint retros but also create a system to prioritize work from our backlog so that it is understandable to both the product team and stakeholders involved. 

Here are some common ways of prioritizing your backlog: 

  • The simplest way to prioritize your agile sprint backlog is by flagging tickets or tasks as high or low priority. Most sprint planning platforms also allow for a medium priority; however, it is much simpler to prioritize when you only have two priority types. At Tara, we use #labels to indicate task priority i.e. #P1, #P2, allowing us to visually distinguish and categorize tasks at a glance.
  • Place high priority items with closer deadlines on top of your ordered list of tasks. This ensures that they grab you and your team’s attention every sprint, even if they get carried over. 
  • Add more fidelity to your issue tickets within epics, or requirements. If you require a more robust way to prioritize work from a backlog, consider adding estimates to work that has to be performed during a sprint. This helps understand your team’s capacity and also assists in prioritizing work by the time it takes to complete it.  We recommend using efforts over story points- at Tara, we use efforts (by days) to estimate our workload.
  • View your backlog and roadmap side by side. Create two tabs, one with your roadmap and the other with your active backlog. Assign work to the sprint that directly correlates with your roadmap on a sprint by sprint basis. 
  • Hide away low priority items within other lists, some common names for this lists are “not doing tasks” or “ice-box”, these common phrases refers to a list of work that is either very low priority or won’t be carried out at all. 

Tips: How to Keep Your Sprint Backlog Healthy

Tip 1: Have Key Stakeholders Collaborate Together

It’s critical that all of your key stakeholders engage with each other and discuss and debate the “what”, “why”, and the “how” to help drive alignment. 

Don’t get caught up as the go-between. 

Gathering them all together (in person or virtually) will save everyone time and ensure nothing gets lost in translation as you try to shuttle messages back and forth between stakeholders. 

Create a shared understanding about the priority (the why) and the actual scope (the what and the how) early so that the team will have greater confidence in project sequencing and timelines (the when) right from the get-go. This will minimize surprises that would delay or derail your projects. 

For smaller organizations, you can often promote collaboration and achieve consensus by bringing together your senior leaders and the development team (leads) into one meeting. 

For larger organizations with multiple complex projects, you may have too many key stakeholders for this to be practical. Instead, you can organize different meetings for different levels of the company to discuss their priorities.

Tip 2: Use a Backlog Prioritization Framework

A prioritization framework will help you promote alignment and resolve conflicts during grooming discussions. 

Product prioritization frameworks give you a way to decide what to work on next without worrying about stakeholder biases or relying on gut feelings. There are plenty of frameworks to choose from. So, you can select the one that works best with your team and project. 

💡 If you’d like to learn more about backlog prioritization frameworks, see part I of the series!

One of the simplest frameworks to use is Value vs. Complexity. Create a diagram with value on the left as the y-axis and complexity across the bottom as the x-axis. Then split the diagram into four quadrants or boxes. Next, take each feature on your backlog and put it into whichever box it fits best. 

When it’s time to tackle features, you address them in the following order of priority:

  1. High value, low complexity: These make a huge difference with minimal effort
  2. High value, high complexity: These features add a lot of value but require more time, resources, or costs
  3. Low value, low complexity: This quadrant includes those features that would be nice to have, but you can live without
  4. Low value, high complexity: This box includes features that are more trouble than they’re worth 
backlog prioritization framework
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Tip 3: Backlog reconcile

You can do this a month by month basis, to maintain good backlog hygiene. It is also recommended to have a product roadmap reconcile. During this ritual which only requires the engineer and product manager, both parties reconcile the finished and unfinished work against the monthly roadmap. This helps understand how much of the work being delivered is directly linked to the planned roadmap that was set out at the start of your month or quarter.

Tip 4: Document Discussions, Questions, and Decisions

Ever have a client furiously claim you left out a key feature? Even though you have no recollection of ever hearing them mention wanting it before? 

That’s the risk you take when you don’t document everything. 

At Tara, we make sure to document every discussion, question, and decision right from the requirements stage. Doing so provides context around our features list, eliminates ambiguity for everyone and helps lead discussions around backlog grooming and prioritization. 

We often keep these discussion points directly in the requirement or tasks description, so that those details are always easily accessible in one place in the future.

documentation in agile requirements

Any time a stakeholder requests a change to your backlog or the priority of items, record it somewhere you can easily find it later. Simply recording questions, requests, demands, and discussions will save your whole team a lot of headaches as the project progresses. 

You’ll never again have to worry about a feature being missed. And if a client (or other stakeholder) insists they’ve already asked for something, you’ll have solid proof to support whether they actually did or not.  

Using a collaboration software like Slack can help you record and store all of your conversations in a central location. You can create specific channels for your agile team to discuss tasks, technical issues, and share resources. Just make sure the tool you select lets you organize discussions, has an easy-to-use search function and doesn’t delete your history after a certain point (the free version of Slack limits your access to past messages!) 

Sprint Backlog in Agile – Final Words

If you’re new to scrum, keep in mind that things won’t always go smoothly, especially in the beginning – we know this from experience. Your sprint backlog will never be perfect right off the bat, which is why it’s so critical to refine it and groom it as you go. 

Focus on selecting the right Product Owner and capturing all the essential features and tasks. Work on detailing the high priority items without worrying too much about those further down the list. Prioritizing work consistently, using a metric and categorizing items, especially on a large backlog, to help you sort and review it. And have regular pre-planning meetings to modify the backlog based on changes and new info. 

Next Steps

Want more help refining and grooming your backlog for optimal sprint planning? Check out Tara, the product delivery platform. Our modern sprint planning software can help you keep your backlog healthy, improve your sprint planning, and increase velocity. Try it out for free today!

grooming sprint backlog