How to Start a Product Backlog

and the transformative power of a robust backlog
An infographic showing the three steps to organize a product backlog

As a new product owner or a product owner who has joined a new team, getting your initial product backlog off to a strong start is more than just a preliminary step; it's a foundational necessity for your scrum project's success. Think of it as laying down the cornerstone for a building: if it’s off, even by a fraction, the entire structure could be compromised. 

A well-crafted backlog sets your project's direction, pace, and quality, serving as both a roadmap and a source of motivation for your team. Neglecting this crucial step could lead to confusion, inefficiency, and missed opportunities.

With almost 40 years of product development, management, and leadership under my belt, not to mention millions of miles of air travel and thousands of conversations with people like you around the globe, I can assure you, you're about to embark on one of the most rewarding journeys of your professional life. 

Setting Your Sails: Starting with a Product Vision

A product owner without a vision is like a ship without a compass. In both cases, you might drift aimlessly or, worse—run aground. Your product vision is that compass.

Let's say you're developing a fitness app. Your vision could be "Inspiring people to live healthier lives by making fitness achievable and fun." This vision becomes the guiding premise for every decision, every sprint, and every backlog item.

Your Pillar of Strength: A Strong Product Goal

After setting your vision, the next step is to establish a strong product goal. This is like your battle flag, waving high, keeping your team aligned, motivated, and setting an anticipated deadline. After all, most strong goals have dates.

For that fitness app, a product goal could be "Onboard 1 million users and achieve a daily user engagement rate of 30% by the end of the first year."

The product goal was introduced in the 2020 Scrum Guide and is intended to give product owners a tool to keep their scrum teams focused on what MUST be accomplished.

From Vision and Goal to Product Backlog: The Magical Transformation

With your vision and product goal established, crafting your initial product backlog becomes less of a chore and more of an exhilarating challenge.

  1. Start by breaking your product goal into the problems that need to be solved to achieve the goal.
    1. What can’t we do that we need to be able to do?
    2. What capability are we lacking that would make a BIG difference in our stakeholder’s lives?
    3. What are we doing inefficiently/manually that we could do better through product enhancements and improvements?
  2. Categorize your product backlog items by the IMPACT that solving a particular problem would have on the product goal.
    1. If a product backlog item can have a BIG impact on achieving the product goal, categorize the product backlog item as “HIGH VALUE.”
    2. If a product backlog item can have a VERY LITTLE impact on achieving the product goal, categorize the product backlog item as “LOW VALUE.”
    3. Everything else, call it “MEDIUM VALUE.”
  3. Now, build your product backlog, putting the HIGH VALUE items first and the MEDIUM VALUE items next. Take the LOW VALUE items and consider getting rid of them rather than putting them on the product backlog at all.

Focused Impact: Building What Truly Matters

Ah, the allure of trying to build everything on your product backlog! It's tempting, isn't it? But here's a gem of wisdom from someone who's been down that road: It's not about ticking off every item on your list. No, it's about surgically selecting the most impactful backlog items that can be realistically completed within your budget. Why build a castle when a secure and welcoming home will serve your purpose? Zero in on what moves the needle toward your product vision and product goal. This laser-focused approach maximizes the return on your investment and keeps your team motivated and your stakeholders satisfied. It's the art of building wisely, not wastefully. Aim for impact, not just completion. 

The Power of a Properly Constructed Product Backlog

Someone close to me was once involved in an important project that would save patients' lives in a hospital if successful. The vision was simply:

“No preventable deaths”

Simple and powerful.

The initial product goal for this impressive vision was:

“By the end of Q1xx, reduce preventable deaths by 0.7%.”

Again, simple and powerful. Now, it’s time to create the product backlog. So, the product owner gathered all the stakeholders and asked, “What are the problems we need to solve to achieve the goal of a 0.7% reduction in preventable deaths?” She handed out lots of index cards, and they got to work.

The result? 300 index cards or, in other words, 300 product backlog items. Now what? The product owner had four analysts and three months to complete the work. So, she began separating the cards into two stacks: those that would significantly impact the product goal (HIGH VALUE) and those that would have a more negligible impact on the product goal (LOW VALUE). She then focused her team on the 75 high-value product backlog items.

When all was said and done, the team completed 29 of the 75 high-value backlog items. They delivered on time. 

But here’s the real lesson. By the end of the first quarter (about five months after the work was delivered), the hospital was able to start identifying the reduction in preventable deaths. While the team only got 29 of 75 high-value backlog items done (or 29 out of 300 if you prefer), they completely surpassed their goal of a 0.7% reduction, hitting a 2.4% reduction instead!

The moral: With a properly built product backlog, you don’t need to do everything. You only need to do the right things.

Your Journey Begins Now

I’ve made this trek that you're about to embark on, and I can tell you the sense of accomplishment and the impact you can make are like nothing else. Your investment in understanding how to create an initial product backlog effectively says something extraordinary about you. You are indeed a visionary ready to inspire change.

So, let's go out there and make some history, shall we? I'll be right here, cheering you on every step of the way.

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