photo (11)The product backlog in Agile projects is a list of sized and prioritized work items that act as a hub by driving project activities. Work on items that is not on the backlog should not be done. The backlog is an important tool to plan and manage work in an Agile project.  The power and importance of the tool makes it a tempting target for bad habits.

The first bad habit is using the backlog as a dumping ground. Because the backlog is the guide for the work that will be done, it is easy for it to become a magnet of every idea and potential work item that a project might need to tackle. The backlog can become an overbearing mess. All backlogs that are truly living documents must be continuously groomed to ensure that it includes work that will done and items that are not relevant are trimmed. Backlogs that become dumping grounds become difficult to manage and prioritize.  Important work can get lost, leading to frustration and potentially to work creeping in form other sources because the backlog is unworkable.

The second bad habit is using the backlog to establish a big up front design (BUFD). Emergent design is a common attribute of Agile projects. An emergent design is developed with an incremental and just-in-time approach through deliberate conscious decision making. The design is create a piece at the time as the stories/work items require. Delaying and spreading out the development of a design ensures that design and the decisions driven by the design are made at a point where the team has the most information possible. The information is developed, not only conceptually, but also though the experience of developing potentially deliverable software.

The third bad habit is to freeze the backlog. A frozen backlog will very quickly become shelfware (put on the shelf and not referred to again), rather than being a living documents that is refined and groomed. It will no longer represent the a single source of truth as to what has been done, what is being done and what is currently planned to be done.

Agile product backlogs are not dumping grounds of ever growing lists of work items that will never see the light of day.  Nor are backlogs a repositories of big up-front designs. Finally, backlogs are not frozen tomes that can be read once and put on the shelf.  A backlog is a working deliverable that’s evolutionary nature dynamically guides work, facilitates grooming and the capture of an emergent design.

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