Backlog Refinement Explained [+ Free Template]

Learn what a backlog refinement really is and how to host a backlog refinement meeting. Plus, get a free template!

When you think of agile, you might think of ad hoc, on-a-whim thinking that only focuses on in-the-moment problems and solutions. In other words, you might struggle to think of the planning focus that agile methodologies bring. 

Effectively managing a backlog of activities is a process that can be easily integrated into an agile product development approach. Here, we discuss what this process really is, and explain how to host a backlog refinement meeting!

What is backlog refinement? 

Backlog refinement, also known as backlog grooming, is the process of reviewing and narrowing down the list of tasks that your team has left to do. When the backlog is significantly long, it can be more difficult to prioritize team efforts, which may impact the productivity or success of objectives and key results (OKRs).

Host productive backlog refinement meetings

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Key benefits of backlog refinement 

1Encourages collaboration

Your team members each have different areas of responsibility at work, and therefore they may have different views on each task in the backlog. Aligning with your team to refine the backlog ensures that important tasks are not accidentally deprioritized. This collaboration also brings in more knowledge and expertise to help identify how long specific tasks might take (for example. your team might want to prioritize quick-to-complete tasks or build out a specialized project team for specific, larger tasks). 

2Increases efficiency of sprint planning

Identifying the important projects ensures that your team can narrow in on fewer topics during the next sprint. Having less things to focus on at once ensures that you can put more time and resources into having a higher quality result. 

Sifting through and organizing all items in the backlog can also help to determine which items may need to be completed in an earlier sprint, and which may be dependent on the completion of other activities. Therefore, your sprints will be much more efficient and you are less likely to experience delays while waiting for dependencies to be completed. 

3Creates an organized backlog 

When you’re clearing through the items on your team to-do list, you may find yourself organizing tasks into common factors. For example, you can categorize backlog items by:

  • The project that an item is a part of
  • The type of task (for example, process optimization, research, etc.)
  • The person or team responsible for the task (for example, partner marketing, sales enablement, or product development)
  • The prioritization of the task
  • Dependencies

In this decluttering process, you may find some duplicates or tasks that are similar enough to be combined into one. Deleting or merging these tasks is part of the refinement process and helps you to organize more efficiently. 

4Prioritizes things of importance  

When you have a smaller list of things to work through, it’s easier to define what needs to be done first. Consider marking each activity on the backlog with any dependencies (for example, task #34 cannot be done until tasks #12 and #35 are done). As well, you’ll want to know the approximate time to complete each activity, which is most often measured by the number of working days required. This is helpful for setting project schedules and estimating due dates. When prioritizing activities, you might base the prioritization on urgency (for example, this is actively holding up another project), complexity (for example, this project will take a long time so we need to start on it now), or another measure relevant to your department’s OKRs. 

How to host a backlog refinement meeting 

1Only invite those who need to be there 

Backlog refinement meetings can be tedious and complex, especially when you’re sifting through long lists of upcoming activities. To minimize complexity, only invite those who absolutely need to attend the meeting. For example, a suggested list of attendees includes:

  • The product owner
  • The development team that will be working on those projects
  • Representatives from customer support, sales, or marketing departments that may be impacted by the activities
  • Other stakeholders who have a say in the product decisions

2Assign meeting roles

Meeting roles define what each attendee will contribute to the meeting (helpful hint: if you’re struggling to place an attendee with a relevant meeting role, it’s likely that they don’t need to be attending this meeting).

Most meetings have a standard set of meeting roles, such as the meeting host, time keeper, note takers, the voice of the customer, key decision makers, and optional attendees. In backlog refinement meetings, it might not be necessary to have optional attendees as you’ll want to focus on keeping the attendee list small. As well, you might look to have just one or two final decision makers from each participating department so it’s easy to come to final decisions if the team cannot otherwise agree. 

3Create and share a meeting agenda 

Having a well-structured meeting agenda is helpful for allocating specific blocks of time to each discussion point in your meeting. If your backlog is long, you may take some time in the initial meeting to discuss how to break up the backlog refinement process into multiple meetings. From there, you’ll want a standardized agenda for each backlog refinement meeting to ensure there’s enough time for reviewing, categorizing, refining, and prioritizing items. 

The product owner is typically the one responsible for creating and managing the meeting agenda across all backlog refinement meetings. Ahead of each call, the product owner should also share the agenda with all participants to get feedback and help prepare attendees for the upcoming topics. 

4Determine when the best time to host the meeting is 

Teams may decide to review their backlog activities at any point during the sprint. For some teams, it may make sense to do this at the start of each sprint to help with direction and goals for the project. For other teams, it may be more useful to refine the backlog mid-sprint when there is a lot of activity ongoing and developers want to ensure they are prioritizing the most important work. Or, finally, teams may prefer doing the refinement at the end of the sprint when they have knowledge from the full sprint process or to prepare for future sprints. 

5Share the user story

In backlog refinement meetings, at least one attendee should represent the voice of the customer. This meeting role will speak on behalf of the market research, user stories, or other information about the customer. Having this perspective shared with the team ensures that activities align with the customer requirements. Often, this is extremely helpful in feature prioritization (for example, asking “which feature is the customer actually asking for?”). The end user is often the person who decides whether or not to purchase the software, so their perspective is critical.  

6Break the story down

For the sales and marketing teams, the user story may feel obvious and well-known. For the development team, this might not be the case as they have less day-to-day exposure to the customer. Spend time early on in the backlog refinement process to review the user story. Some things you can clarify include:

  • Who is the customer? What is their demographic information?
  • What is important to the customer? What do they value?
  • What does the customer want to see within the short term? What do they want in the long term?
  • What does the customer actively avoid? What do they really not like?

7Vote with planning poker cards 

Planning poker is an agile decision-making method used for estimating and planning activities. In backlog refinement meetings, you can use this to decide which tasks should stay or go, and at what priority level they should be included. 

The way planning poker works is that the user story is explained to the group. Then, each estimator (meeting attendee) is provided with a deck of “poker cards” which have various values (which are 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100). Each backlog task is discussed and all questions about the task are asked and answered. Attendees will each place a value card down and all cards are revealed at the same time. If everyone has different values, more questioning and discussions take place and the card placing process repeats. This cycle continues until all attendees place the same values on the task and this becomes the designated value for that specific task.

8Come to a consensus

The planning poker card process is a cyclical process to determine the value of each task in the backlog. The process of placing value on each task repeats until there is an agreed value for that task. When you have sorted through all activities, you may choose to run the planning poker card process on multiple same-value tasks that need to be further prioritized (for example, where multiple high-priority projects cannot be completed at the same time, this process will help determine which one to start first). 

Having an agreement on which backlog activities will be kept, removed, or refined will ensure that the wider team is aligned on upcoming projects. 

Free backlog refinement meeting agenda template

Parting advice

When planning your backlog refinement process, it’s important to keep in mind the voice of the customer (who will be buying the end result?), the team’s OKRs (what does the team itself want to complete?), and the goals of upper management (as an organization, what are we trying to achieve?). Following these three boundaries will help guide your backlog refinement process to ensure employees are focusing on the most valuable tasks.


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About the author

Alexandria Hewko

Alexandria Hewko shares her insights from a background in international marketing, business management, and information technology. From starting her own travel blog in 2018 to launching global marketing campaigns in the tech and CE industry, Alexandria is passionate about storytelling and educating audiences on topics that aren't commonly talked about. She has completed her Bachelor's of International Business at Carleton University and is currently working towards her Master's of Digital Transformation & Innovation at the University of Ottawa.

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