The Keys to Effective Product Backlog Refinement

5 Practical Tips to Keep Your Team Moving
The Keys to Effective Product Backlog Refinement

"Product Backlog refinement is the act of breaking down and further defining Product Backlog items into smaller, more precise items. This is an ongoing activity to add details, such as a description, order, and size. Attributes often vary with the domain of work."
- The Scrum Guide 2020

 One of the keys to good scrum is a well-refined product backlog. In practice, this is a lot harder than it sounds. 

While backlog refinement is described in the Scrum Guide as an "ongoing activity," it doesn’t occur spontaneously. Backlog refinement benefits from structure and cadence just like the scrum events (the sprint, sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective). As I describe in my Sprint Cadence article, consistent cadence leads to greater focus and predictability, which in turn means more successful outcomes (i.e., realization of value). 

So, while I encourage scrum teams to refine continuously, I also recommend regularly timed refinement sessions within each sprint. 

Five Tips for Backlog Refinement Meetings

  1. Meet at least three hours per two-week sprint

  2. Spread out the meetings 

  3. Follow the 15/5 rule of discussion (explained below)

  4. Limit backlog refinement attendance to the right people

  5. Publish an agenda beforehand


1. Meet at Least Three Hours Per Sprint

The product backlog is the gas that fuels the scrum team. If you don't have enough gas before a trip you could end up stranded on the side of the road. If the scrum team doesn't have enough work to do, it can lead you in all manner of undesirable directions, such as making up work on the spot, losing team members because you're not "busy enough,” gold plating, etc. 

As a bare minimum, try for three hours per sprint, less than five percent of the total working hours of a two-week sprint. For a product that is underway and is following good scrum practices, this should be enough to keep the team from starving for work.

For new teams or new products, considerably more time may be needed as the "gas tank" is filled.


2. Spread Out Backlog Refinement Meetings

Space out your refinement into two or three sessions each sprint. This improves your refinement in several ways.

  • Refinement is mentally intensive. Working longer than 90 minutes in a single go will result in lower-quality work.

  • Smaller, more specific refinements save time for stakeholders and subject-matter experts. You often need outside input for a product backlog item (PBI). Optimize the time of these external people so they never need to discern when, in a three-hour session, their PBI will come up.

  • Everyone needs time to think. Trying to refine everything in one go denies you the advantages of perspective. Refinement is an iterative process that allows the  understanding of an item to improve before it is taken into a sprint.

Start with two 90-minute sessions spaced a day apart and see how that works for everyone.


3. Follow the 15/5 Rule of Discussion

This extends the "spread it out" advice to the individual product backlog items. When refining a single item, don't spend more than 15 minutes of the refinement session on it. Timebox your refinement of an individual item and come back to it at a future session. Even if you think you're "done" refining an item, set it on the shelf and come back in the next meeting to be sure.

On the extreme side, don't let an unproductive conversation go on for more than five minutes. If a new idea is presented and you're still heavily in the "I don't understand" stage five minutes later, it's a good sign the product owner needs to do more work offline. Come back to it in a future session.


4. Limit Backlog Refinement Attendance to the Right People

The answer to "who attends/" is "The scrum team decides." Who are the people needed to be able to move refinement forward on the items being discussed? Not everyone on the scrum team needs to be at every session. 

Two pieces of advice here:

  • In the beginning of a new team or new product, everyone comes. Context is important, and you want everyone on the team to understand the bigger picture.

  • Always have someone with "doing" skills (e.g. coder for software), someone with a visual mindset (e.g. a UI/UX person), someone with a test mindset, and the product owner. This ensures all aspects of creating an increment are covered in the refinement.


5. Publish a Backlog Refinement Agenda Before Meeting

Having a planned agenda is beneficial in many ways:

  • Mental time to prepare. Some people need a chance to think about a topic before they are ready to talk about it.

  • Align stakeholders or subject-matter experts. If you need outside input, you need to know when to invite them.

  • Ensure the right people are there. If you’re going to dive into a topic that only one team member currently has expertise in, you probably want that person there. 


Keep the Tank Full

A good cadence of refinement, done right, will keep enough items in the product backlog that the team never runs out of gas. As a Certified ScrumMaster® or Certified Product Owner®, shoot for always having 1.5 to 2 times the amount of work ready than can be done in a sprint, based on the velocity of your team. 


Related Article: 5 Practical Ways to Help Optimize Backlog Refinement


About the Author

Joel Bancroft-Connors

Joel Bancroft-Connors is a Principal Consultant at Applied Frameworks and a Scrum Alliance Certified Team Coach®. Known to many as “The Gorilla Coach,” he offers more than 20 years of experience coaching teams and managing products at blue chip software companies. Bancroft-Connors is also a Product Management Professional.



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