Use principles to guard the projects value.

Use principles to guard the projects value.

To some, adding a formal meeting to your project calendar for backlog grooming smacks of heavy methodologies. It is as if adding a standing meeting, onE just before a sprint begins to review and hone the backlog will unbalance Agile as we know it. I have heard Alistair Cockburn suggest than anything outside of the original definition of Scrum represented barnacles (barnacles grow on the hulls of ships and cause extra drag).  I believe Alistair’s the comment was meant to cautionary, and any step added to the process better deliver more value than it costs in process drag. Regardless of how it was meant, let’s take the cautions to heart and make sure we do no harm. When we add a backlog grooming session there are six governance principles to make sure we don’t reduce the amount of value the project can deliver.

  • Future Looking: Backlog grooming sessions are about the future. In a grooming session, participants are exploring where the project will be going in the relatively short-term future.  What the session is not is a platform to whine about or rehash the past. Use a coach to help set the tone for grooming sessions when they are introduced or if problems start to crop up.
  • Not Final Plans: Decisions made in backlog grooming sessions, estimates for example, are starting points for discussion in sprint planning.  The grooming session does not reflect a new form of hierarchy that dictates direction and how work will be done, but rather reflects a need to make sure everything is ready to maximize the time available to the team. Grooming sessions that deliver final plans for team rubber-stamping have missed the concept.
  • Identify Emerging Risks: Risk and risk management activities should be incorporated into the day-to-day activity of the team (or teams), however the grooming session provides a time to discuss whether there any emerging risks, whether there are new stories that are needed to address risk and whether any stories previously identified to address risk need to be re-prioritized.
  • Grooming Sessions Require Homework: Participants need to review that they think will be covered during grooming session before they walk in the door.
  • Time Box:  Grooming sessions should be time-boxed, just like every activity in Agile.  I have found that once a project has reached a steady state, the formal grooming session will need 30 minutes each week of sprint duration (a grooming session for a two week sprint should be one hour). Grooming sessions for a brand new project may take longer and grooming sessions for project nearing completion may need less.
  • Retrospectives: Just like any process in Agile the participants in the grooming session need reflect on what was accomplished, how it was accomplished and how it can be done better.

Backlog grooming sessions help get stories ready for the team to plan. As we have noted stories are honed, split, prioritized, and risk stories reviewed so that the sprint planning session is effective and efficient. The process sounds nearly too good to be true, which means that it probably is not true unless we remind ourselves of the principles that will govern backlog grooming.

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