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Hone the backlog!

In Backlog Grooming Revisited: What, When and How Much we described backlog grooming as an important technique to ensure stories were well formed, the right size and had acceptance criteria. While most formal backlog grooming sessions have their own specific agenda and cadence, I have found that these are the typical set of tasks.

Formal Grooming “Things to Cover” Checklist

  • Break Stories Down: Large stories or epics need to be broken down into smaller stories (each delivering working software – Rule 1). When a time-boxed Agile methodology is used, a story must be able to be completed during the time box.  For example if Scrum is being used, a story must be able to be completed during the sprint. A rule of thumb that I use is that the story should be able to be completed 2 or 3 days of effort if it was the only thing on the team’s plate. One reason small stories are better is due to the “stuff happens syndrome.” If a small story gets stuck (something goes wrong) other stories can be substituted and completed ensuring that progress continues. Alternately, if the sprint backlog is just a few larger stories and anything goes wrong with one it is unlikely that a new item can be substituted and completed maintaining the anticipated rate of progress.
  • Hone the Stories: During the grooming session the participants should review how the story is worded.  Make sure it makes sense and that it conveys what is really needed. If the story is not understandable or is incorrect, what gets built will not be what anyone wants.
  • Add Acceptance Criteria (if missing): Acceptance criteria expresses how the team will understand if they have met the story’s business need. The acceptance criteria, not only provides a set of test cases, but also provides additional definition to the user story.
  • Add User Stories (if needed): New stories can come from many angles.  As stories are broken down new stories will be naturally created.  The process of grooming generates a significant level of data sharing which will cause the participants to discover new stories.  New stories need to be added to the backlog.
  • Initial Estimates: The grooming participants should take an initial cut at an estimate for the story.  I generally ask the participants to take the first cut at size either in story points or quick and early function points. The initial size gives the product owner information that can help with prioritization of work for the next sprint.
  • Educate: Data sharing, discussion and communication provide a platform for the participants in the grooming session to gain an understanding not only of the stories being discussed but also the direction of the project. The knowledge that the grooming session participants gain can later be communicated to the larger team so that everyone’s knowledge base is enhanced.

User stories are the currency of an Agile project. Grooming sessions are an important tool for ensuring the stories are ready and that participants in the grooming session have a deep understanding of the work they about to plan and accept into a sprint.

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