Periodic grooming keeps the number of knots down!

Periodic grooming keeps the number of knots down!

Backlog grooming is an important technique that can be used in any Agile or Lean methodology. At one point the need for backlog grooming was debated, however most practitioners now find the practice useful. The simplest definition of backlog grooming is the preparation of the user stories or requirements to ensure they are ready to be worked on. The act of grooming and preparation can cover a wide range of specific activities and can be performed at any time (although some times are better than others).

In Agile projects, the backlog is a dynamic representation of business and technical needs. Backlogs can be the expressed needs of a single project or the long term list of needs for an application that will be delivered over many projects. In many organizations anyone (business analysts, developers, users, customers and other stakeholders) can add items to backlog. Given the wide variety of uses and sources of the backlog, grooming is a critical process. Grooming ensures that each story is understood and qualified for inclusion on the backlog. The grooming process reviews how a story is constructed and makes sure that it is properly formed. Grooming also enforces prioritization of the backlog. If a story is going to be worked on soon, the process helps to make sure it is granular enough to be incorporated into a sprint.

In most Scrum-based projects that are past the initial backlog formation, backlog grooming is preformed formally as a periodic event held a few days before the sprint planning meeting. Informally, backlog grooming can (and does) occur during any discussion of the backlog items. In Kanban implementations, backlog grooming is more of a continuous event. Grooming occurs as the immediate backlog (the immediate backlog are the items that will be worked on as soon as capacity is available) is replenished so that the team does not run out of work that is ready to be pulled onto the board.

As the backlog is created, initially the process of grooming often requires a significant amount of effort in order to establish an initial understanding and prioritization. Once established, formal backlog planning becomes less of a burden. Mike Cohn suggests that backlog grooming can consume 5 – 10% of the effort in each sprint. My observations of Agile teams (both Scrum and Kanban) that are past startup do not require that much effort for formal grooming activities, however the amount of formal (and informal if that were measurable) is not insignificant and is variable.

Whether backlog grooming is practiced as an event or as a continuous process, the goal of the activity is to make sure that the team has a list of well-formed stories in priority order ready to be worked on. Grooming does not replace planning, but is a predecessor. However, the process is not free. Effort is needed to perform backlog grooming.  The amount of effort depends on the state of the backlog and where you are in the project life cycle, however grooming pays off. Groomed stories can be more easily planned (more information on sprint planning), accepted in to the sprint and then accomplished.