What is product backlog refinement?

The Scrum framework prescribes five events; the sprintsprint planningdaily scrumsprint review and sprint retrospective, all of which are formal opportunities for the team to inspect and adapt something. There is however another regular, complementary practice, most Scrum teams undertake; product backlog refinement.

Refinement of the product backlog is alluded to in the Scrum guide as an ongoing process involving adding detail, estimates and priority order to the items on a product backlog, but practically how it works is left up to the team to decide.

Why refine your backlog?

Refinement of items on the product backlog is essentially another planning activity. It allows the product owner and the development team to collaborate on the high-level analysis of backlog items before the actual work can start. Regular refinement of the product backlog helps teams to understand their work better and meet sprint goals, as well as encouraging shorter, more efficient sprint planning meetings and facilitating more predictable delivery.

A fundamental part of the backlog refinement process is the concept of a product backlog item (PBI) moving up the product backlog as it gets closer to when it will be implemented. As each PBI evolves it gets reviewed and revised (refined) regularly until its acceptance criteria, design and high-level implementation details are well understood by the developers that will do the work. There is certainly a skill for Scrum teams to learn here. Through inspecting and adapting their refinement process, teams will get better at understanding when the last responsible moment is for planning each type of work.

Product backlog refinement top-tips:

  • If you use story points for estimating effort, investigate planning poker as a technique to use during product backlog refinement meetings.
  • Teams can often resent being asked to attend backlog refinement sessions on top of sprint planning, daily scrums etc.  Consider who is really needed at each refinement session. Tactics such as only involving the key people for each story, assigning owners to certain PBI’s or “three amigos planning” may help here.
  • Consider creating a definition of ready to establish a shared understanding of when a PBI is ready to be considered for sprint planning.

More details on backlog refinement can be found in this Backlog Refinement insight.

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