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How to optimize project backlog. The benefits of backlog refinement.

Project backlog optimization
8 min read

In the world of project management, using Backlog Management (optimizing your project backlog) is an efficient way to organize and prioritize your software team’s tasks. A project backlog is a list of items that you must ensure are developed in the project development process. It is a prioritized list of deliverables that are completed during the project. Regardless of the methodology used (Scrum / Kanban), maintaining a backlog of tasks together with the appropriate set of rules is the key to success in the project. If you want to learn more about project backlog and backlog refinement, you are in the right place.

Read the article to find out more about:

  • Organizing project backlog.
  • Identyfing tasks to provide correct etimates.
  • Backlog refinement issues.
  • Sprint planning.

What is a project backlog?

A product backlog is an organized, prioritized list of software development tasks that a team completes while building new software or updating existing programs. It’s a key component of scrum and Agile development methods. A project backlog is often used to align the efforts of the development team. It lists the items of the highest priority at the top so that the team can easily know which tasks to complete first – the items ranked highest on the list represent the team’s most important or urgent tasks to complete.

A project backlog helps structure scope and identify business priorities before teams spend too much time planning details. Typical items on a project backlog include user stories, changes to existing functionality, and bug fixes. The only person who makes decisions about the tasks’ prioritization is a Product Owner. He can include the entire team in the refinement and grooming processes, but decision-making is always on him.

A project backlog:

  • Is a transparent single source of truth for the project. It aligns teams and stakeholders as it represents an agreed-upon plan for the items that should be tackled next.
  • Is flexible so that when the project changes, you can adapt the backlog.
  • Improves accuracy of deliverables. It allows you to systematize the project

Benefits of using a project backlog

There are many benefits of using a project backlog to prioritize software development tasks. The most important are the following:

  1. A project backlog increases the efficiency of the development team. Their time is better managed, and developers can spend less time differentiating between tasks.
  2. The project gains flexibility. Particular tasks don’t stay unassigned for too long since a Product Owner can easily reprioritize tasks on the backlog. Also, planning takes less time.
  3. Project backlogs facilitate team discussion among a cross-functional team. They help the teams decide on how to prioritize work on a project.
  4. All developers and stakeholders are aligned when it comes to expectations. They know the status and the tasks that they still need to complete.
  5. You minimize the risks, and manage dependencies in a better way.
  6. A project backlog may lead to attaining a higher level of customer or business satisfaction.

How to identify tasks within a project?

Proper task identification is crucial to create project estimates. If there are any doubts or misunderstandings, they should be in each case clarified as soon as possible. But how to decide which tasks get priority? How to implement them in a smooth-flowing work schedule? You can:

  • Identify tasks by their importance. Simply speaking, you start by asking which steps need to be performed for the project to be finished. It helps you divide the project into larger chunks first and identify milestones.
  • Identify tasks by their completion time. The longer tasks are drawn out, the more deadlines and overall productivity suffer. Such an approach is a good indicator of the task being too big or complex.
  • Identify tasks with input from the team. Professionals know how to estimate which tasks are crucial for the project as well as the time required to finish them.

Once you properly identify tasks within your project, you should also look at task dependencies which means finding out which tasks take priority over others. Then, it’s time to set milestones. There should be a milestone depending on your overall completion deadline.

When you create and break down user stories (small units of development work designed to accomplish a specific goal within a product) make sure you keep tasks small (they should be something that one can do within a single day) and precise in scope.

Backlog Refinement

Backlog refinement is an ongoing process in which the Product Owner and the development team collaborate to ensure that they understand backlog the same way as all other stakeholders. They make sure it has a size estimate for the complexity and effort of their implementation, and they order tasks according to their priority in terms of business value and effort required. In other words, backlog refinement is adding detail, estimates, and order to the project backlog. During the refinement, you review the items are revise them.

It’s crucial to highlight that backlog refinement is an ongoing activity which means there is no best time for it. The Product Owner can refine the backlog at any time. It’s a kind of list of improvements you should make to your product. Backlog refinement keeps the backlog clean and relevant. It updates the teams regularly about the project and enhances work velocity.

The purpose of backlog refinement is to set the priority level for items, align backlog items with KPIs and OKRs, ensure items are appropriately sized, and add detail to backlog items.

Backlog refinement sessions

You should make refinement in a separate meeting. It may include the team and sometimes it makes sense to also invite the client. However, the refinement meeting shouldn’t take more than 10% of the sprint (a 1-week sprint means 2-hour refinement). The goal of such a session is to review any outstanding user stories in the backlog and correctly prioritize those that are prepared for sprint planning. Before the session, the Product Owner should already have project acceptance criteria so that they know which ideas and tasks bring relevant value to the success of the project.

Here is what a role-model backlog refinement session may look like step by step:

  1. The Product Owner presents the backlog.
  2. Data and tasks are analyzed in timeboxes.
  3. Tasks that don’t bring any value are removed from the backlog.
  4. Acceptance criteria are set.
  5. Voting with Planning Poker cards takes place to decide on the number of story points for each user story. You can also use other techniques like No Estimates, Time, etc.
  6. If needed, you decompose. Each item must be sized appropriately to be included in the sprint.
  7. Refinement ends when each item is discussed.

Struggling with backlog refinement issues?

Use spikes – user stories for which the team cannot estimate the effort needed. The term comes from the meaning of the object – a spike is a way to go deep on a problem. Identify spikes after the refinement when you don’t know how to approach the problem. There are functional (when you evaluate the impact of new functionalities on the solutions) and technical (when you investigate technical options) spikes. A spike can be a time box when the team researches as much information as possible to be able to estimate a user story.


Estimates you put on each task in the backlog help you properly plan the sprint. Therefore, you can predict dependencies and define when each task will be completed. When you estimate you should consider:

  • The time one need to complete the task.
  • The complexity of the task (and risks included).
  • The uncertainty of the information you have.
  • Task difficulty of the task as the level of difficulty might be different across developers.

In Agile, teams usually use estimates in a unit of measure called story points. Those are numerical values that follow a modified Fibonacci growth sequence. The numbers represent levels of effort that can be compared to one another due to the relative nature of the scale. When you estimate story points for tasks, you can use some helpful techniques. One of them is Planning Poker where each team member gets a card corresponding to story points’ values and they pick the card that corresponds to what they estimate the story points for the user story. The second popular technique is T-shirt sizing – it simplifies the effort estimation by using big buckets for relative measures which correspond to the T-shirt sizes.

*At WLC, we use the 0-1-2-4-8-12-20-32 matrix (0 – impossible to estimate, 1- approx. 1 hour, 2- approx. 2 h, 4 – approx. 0,5 – 2/3 day, 8 – 1-1,5 days, 12 – up to 2 days, 20 – up to 1 week).

Sprint planning

Spring planning is the very first session the scrum team takes at the beginning of each sprint. The purpose is to define what they can deliver in the sprint and how will they achieve it. It’s crucial to mention that the entire scrum team is involved in planning. There are the Product Owner, the development team, and the Scrum Master. The Product Owner identifies the candidate backlog items and their relative priorities and the team members determine how many of the backlog items they forecast they will be able to complete and determine how they will deliver those backlog items.

At WLC, we tend to utilize 80% of each developer’s time at the maximum (e.g., 17/18 story points or 30/32 h). The remaining time should be spent on supporting the goal of the sprint, code review, fixes, and working on the next items.

Summary project backlog management

Creating software may be a challenge and at WLC, we know it well. However, it’s our role to take you through this journey. The experience we have gained and the methodologies we have worked out make us believe that we are the right partner to build your digital product. To make sure you make the most out of our methodology and best practices, we follow the steps:

  1. We agree with you on the project management terms and conditions.
  2. You get familiar with our WLC Agile methodology and best practices.
  3. We create project boards for you.
  4. We revise the backlog and the sprint.
  5. We set the sprint planning (from our experience, 2 days after refinements works best) and spring review (with the client), and retro.
  6. The sprint starts,
  7. At any stage of the sprint, the entire team collaborates with the Scrum Master and the PO/PM.
  8. We prepare conclusions and further planning.

If you ever struggled with project management start a project with our team and we will get you through the entire process.

Artur Rak

Team Leader, PM Projects

Artur has been working in IT and business for over 15 years. He is fascinated with agile methodologies. He listens and proactively works out a solution on his own. As a project manager, he is ambitious but doesn’t leave anyone behind, he can risk but also admit his mistake. He doesn’t devalue new ideas, but he can be cool about calculation and cost.

Working on a tight schedule keeps him moving forward. He’s looking for minimum and real requirements and adheres to the principle that a project completed based on such assumptions will be a better project than a project that is never finished.

At work, He focuses on good communication and discipline in meetings he participates in. He likes retrospectives and talking to colleagues about our opportunities and problems. Artur focuses on openness and honesty. He likes to rely on someone but is also proud when the team appreciates and feels my support.

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