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9 Tips for Creating a Good Sprint Backlog

03/24/2009 by Luciano Felix

The sprint backlog is a simple list of the tasks that must executed by the team in order to deliver an increment of functional software at the end of that sprint. Sprint backlog creation happens in the second part of the sprint planning meeting with the participation of every team member. Giving some real attention to this process is fundamental to a better understanding by the team about what should be done and to better planning during the sprint. Despite this, many teams still struggle with this activity. I hope these tips will help.

  1. Involve every team member in the process. It can’t be said enough: the involvement of every team member in the process of sprint backlog discovery is essential. On a multi-disciplinary team, everyone can contribute to task creation, enabling the team to draw from several different perspectives about the story. This generates a much richer Sprint Backlog than if only coders or a technical guru were involved.
  2. Discuss how every item should be implemented. Before any tasks are written on post-its it's necessary for the team to spend some time discussing every story that will be brought into the sprint. In fact, the majority of the meeting should be dedicated to understanding how the team is going to tackle the stories. This discussion will involve creating basic designs, checking existing code, discussing architectural possibilities, and so on. Having a shared understanding about the story and the possible solutions will enable the team to create a task list that truly expresses the work to be done.
  3. Have a definition of done. Having a common definition of done in place, available and visible to everyone is extremely important. This definition will serve as a guide to what should be done and will remind the team what the general acceptance criteria are for every item in the backlog.
  4. Identify all kinds of tasks. Too many teams focus on coding tasks. The truth is, though, that coding is not enough to deliver real working software. The sprint backlog should include every kind of task: object modeling, coding, learning a new technology, database activities, tests, and so on. Having a posted definition of done will help to remind teams of the tasks they are forgetting. By listing every aspect of delivering working software and going through those tasks, the team will gain a new understanding of the real effort the next sprint will require.
  5. Don't estimate tasks at all. This is a sensitive one. Estimating tasks in hours is popular and may be necessary when a team if first starting out. In the end, though, we can drop this without losing much. (See Alan Atlas’ article about this topic: The team commitment to the sprint should be done with the backlog items in mind, not the tasks. After all, if we estimate that a task will take 4 hours but it actually takes 12 hours, as long as the team achieves the sprint goal, what difference does it make? Identifying as many tasks as possible and creating a sense of constant progress during the sprint should be enough.
  6. Don't assign tasks up front. Resist the temptation to direct work; the team should decide who is going to do what according to the circumstances. If you start to assign tasks to the “most suitable” team member, it will prevent the rest of the team from learning new things, block communication, and decrease collaboration. Empower and trust the team to manage themselves.
  7. Review the sprint commitment. After task identification, when the team has a much better understanding about the real effort that is needed, the sprint commitment should be reanalyzed. Does the selected sprint backlog really fit in the sprint? If not, there are some alternatives. Drop the item with the lowest priority or split stories into smaller pieces. What matters in the end is that the team can commit to something they have a good understanding about.
  8. Don't use too much time. Respect the time box. Define a meeting duration and stick to it. Timeboxing forces the team to concentrate and intensively discuss the items, making it much more likely that the tasks will be uncovered. The team cannot always identify everything that should be done during the sprint, but that's not a problem. It is much more important for them to gain a thorough understanding of the stories they are bringing into the sprint.
  9. Evolve the Sprint Backlog during the sprint. The team will understand more about the stories as they work on them. New ideas may arise and old ideas may be dropped. The Sprint Backlog should reflect these changes. The Daily Scrum is an excellent time to create new tasks and lose unnecessary ones.

If the team invests the time and effort to build a good sprint backlog it will be rewarded with a much better overall understanding of the work to be done, a sense of progress on a daily basis, and a clear commitment to what will be delivered. It may not be easy, but it will be worth all the hard work.