Product and Sprint: How Backlogs Work in Agile

Product and Sprint: How Backlogs Work in Agile

The agile approach to project management is systematic and incremental, and for these reasons, there needs to be a clear picture of what tasks you will need to complete within these various increments.

Therefore, the idea of the backlog is crucial when putting the agile approach into practice using the Scrum framework.

But the backlog isn’t simply a to-do list. It’s a practical tool and there are two distinct types:

  • The product backlog, and
  • The sprint backlog.

You need to understand how to use these two backlogs work, and how they differ from each other if you want to use the Scrum framework effectively.

What is the Product Backlog?

To understand what the product backlog is, and how it works, you first need to be clear about what defines a product in Scrum.

A product doesn’t have to be a physical thing. In Scrum, the term product can also refer to services or even ideas. Providing these are still tangible items, that each creates specific value, then they are classed as products.

The product backlog is a worklist of items that you wish to implement to achieve your objectives for your product’s development.

The point of the product backlog is that it’s a place where you can put these items, defining what they are and where they will come in the work priorities of the Scrum team.

The product owner is the person responsible for looking after the product backlog. They can add new items to it and make changes to existing items that already exist in the product backlog.

Maintaining, updating and prioritising items on this list is essential for developing the end product.

How Does it Work?

The product backlog is very much an organic thing, subject to constant change. This adaptability is at the heart of the agile approach. The product backlog can contain multiple ideas, some may be relevant, some not. Some will be more clearly defined than others.

The product owner must keep sifting through the backlog, analysing and assessing the items in it. They should clear out unnecessary items, refining them on an ongoing basis.

Because the product backlog is in a constant state of flux, this helps ensure the adaptability of the scrum framework. But there still needs to be a clear sense of control underpinning the product backlog. It’s more than an itemised list, it’s a flexible, dynamic means of managing ideas and workflow.

What is the Sprint Backlog?

The Scrum team works in sprints – these are fixed-length events, during which the team carries out designated tasks.

What determines these tasks? They are items on the sprint backlog. This list provides an overview of the team’s development work relating to specific events. It consists of items taken from the product backlog. But, unlike the product backlog, the team manages the sprint backlog, rather than the product owner.

The sprint backlog should only contain items that the team can complete during each sprint. The Scrum team should build this backlog by deciding which items it can develop during a sprint, working towards a clear sprint goal.

Importantly, the sprint backlog is flexible, even though it contains items related to a specific, fixed sprint goal. The team can change the backlog during a sprint, modifying it to reflect a process of continuous improvement.

The sprint backlog is a subset of the product backlog – it’s dependent on it, and acts as a list of tasks to undertake and complete during each sprint. When the team completes a sprint, they will then get a new sprint backlog for the next sprint.

Any items left unfinished at the end of the sprint will go back into the product backlog, ready to be looked at for the next sprint.

The product backlog expands, as more tasks get added to it. In contrast, the sprint backlog doesn’t grow, but it may change, if the team needs to adapt it to reach the sprint goal.

How the Product and Sprint Backlogs Work Together

The underlying principle to the scrum framework and to the agile approach is to break down big projects into smaller, manageable increments.

These increments allow for a high degree of flexibility so that projects aren’t bogged down by having certain critical steps completely dependent on previous stages of development.

Instead, the system of backlogs and sprints enables teams to work more dynamically and democratically, with shared ownership of ideas.

But to apply the agile mindset and the scrum framework effectively, everyone involved needs a good grasp of how the system works, and how best to adapt it to meet end goals.

For someone new to Scrum, the terminology may, at first, seem a little alien. But when applied in practice, it makes perfect sense.

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As an experienced, agile business analyst and product owner, I work with different teams to help them deliver key objectives using the scrum framework.

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