Understanding how a story or a group of stories fits into the big picture is sometime like reading a single line of Shakespeare and trying to develop the plot for the entire play.

Understanding how a story or a group of stories fits into the big picture is sometime like reading a single line of Shakespeare and trying to develop the plot for the entire play.

There are two reasons to hold backlog grooming meetings. The first is to make sprint planning more efficient and effective. The second reason is to make sure you understand your backlog. When teams don’t spend the time needed to groom the backlog, planning meetings can be very tense and extend for hours . . . and hours. Backlog grooming sessions can be whole team activities (rare) or sub-team activities (more common). The most common technique used to generate a sub-team for grooming is the Three Amigos (or some variant). The tallest hurdle all distributed teams face is ensuring effective communications, followed quickly by staying focused on the task at hand. Many of the same techniques we discussed for sprint planning in distributed teams will be effective, however, backlog grooming has a few unique twists.

  1. Everybody needs to see the story at all times. Everyone involved must be able to see the story being groomed, preferably as it is being edited. Reading a story to someone at the other end of a phone and then amending the reading as you wordsmith the statement is difficult for many people to conceptualize. Most webinar tools now have whiteboard options. Cut and paste the story and acceptance criteria into the whiteboard feature so that everyone can see the words. One team I recently worked with used messaging software to approximate the process (it worked fairly well). Tools like webcams and telepresence can be used, however make sure the story and the acceptance criteria are easily readable by all parties. When a team member can’t hear or see well enough to stay involved, they will lose focus and probably start doing email.
  2. The right people and locations need to be involved. There are many shades of distributed teams, ranging from two locations to completely dispersed (everyone in different locations). The goal of grooming is to make sure the backlog items that may be used in the next sprint are understood, well-formed and have acceptance criteria. Typically, grooming is most effective when the three major team constituencies are to be involved: the business, the developers and the testers. When a team is distributed, locations can become constituencies that need to be involved to ensure that the grooming session attains the goal of making sure the stories are understood. This is an argument for whole team grooming sessions so that no location feels left out.
  3. Use story maps to link stories the big picture. Understanding how a story or a group of stories fits into the big picture is sometime like reading a single line of Shakespeare and trying to develop the plot for the entire play. When a team is distributed, it becomes more difficult for members to have a side conversation to get things back on track or to develop ways to stay aligned to project’s big picture without a more formal reference. A story map provides a frame of reference so that the team members involved in the grooming session can see how the stories fit into overall project. The use of a story map in the grooming process makes it easier to identify or develop a theme for the next sprint (a theme provides focus and direction to the team).

Backlog grooming is a process to make sure the stories that might be used in the next sprint are understood, well-formed and have acceptance criteria. When backlogs are not well groomed teams tend to spend a lot time planning and re-planning rather than delivering value. This is true whether a team is distributed or not. The problem is that when a team is distributed any hiccup takes more effort to fix, making grooming even more important.

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