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How to Hold an Effective Backlog Grooming Session

3 March 2011

Angela Druckman
The Druckman Company

When I come into organizations as an Agile Coach, one of the common areas of frustration with Scrum is the Sprint Planning Meeting.  “These meetings take forever!” my clients complain.  An easy way to make Sprint Planning meetings both shorter and more effective is through the regular use of Product Backlog Grooming Sessions.

Sometimes called StoryTime sessions, the purpose of these meetings is to make improvements to the Product Backlog.  That definition is deliberately vague because the meeting is quite versatile.  A Backlog Grooming session can be used to:
• Write user stories (it is possible to build a Product Backlog “from scratch” in a series of one or more StoryTime sessions)
• Break down user stories that are too big (epics)
• Improve user stories that are poorly written
• Estimate backlog items
• Add acceptance criteria
• Look deeper into the backlog to do longer-range technical planning

That last bullet is an important one.  Some people mistakenly believe that doing Scrum means never focusing on anything but what is coming up in the next sprint.  This is not true.  Instead, backlog grooming sessions are a great place for a Product Owner to say “The March release is coming along great, so today I would like to spend time looking at the user stories I hope to get in the July release.”  Doing this gives teams an opportunity to look further into the future of the product, and can alert them to technical challenges and “gotcha’s”.

How can you hold an effective Product Backlog grooming session?  Here are some guidelines:

• Have a goal in mind – in each of these sessions the Product Owner should come in saying, “Here is what I would like to accomplish today.”  This can be an agreed-upon goal with the team, but the point is the goal should be set before the meeting starts.  Wandering into a backlog grooming session saying, “Well, ummm…what do we want to talk about today?” is a guarantee that time will be wasted.
• Schedule the session to support and improve the next Sprint Planning meeting – a good backlog grooming session leaves everyone involved feeling familiar with the product backlog, gives them a clear understanding of the goals for the next sprint, and means they can hit the ground running in the Sprint Planning meeting.  So schedule backlog grooming sessions to precede the next Sprint Planning by at least a couple of days.
• Limit “chicken” participation – known as “chickens” in Scrum, stakeholders can be effective participants in a backlog grooming session.  But limit their numbers.  If you have, for example, 10 stakeholders from whom you want to gather feedback, get it from them in a series of 2 – 3 meetings, not one big one.  Remember, stakeholders often do not understand the rules of Scrum as well as the team, Product Owner and ScrumMaster do.  They often do not have “good Scrum manners”, and you may find a large group of them can quickly take over your meeting, making it chaotic and less effective.

Making regular use of backlog grooming sessions is one of the best ways to ensure Sprint Planning meetings run more smoothly.  They improve the quality of the product backlog, give everyone involved more familiarity with that is being asked for and make it easier to reach a Sprint Commitment with confidence.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.8 (36 ratings)


Arran Hartgroves, CSP,CSM, 3/4/2011 5:25:36 PM
I've found getting my Scrum teams to do backlog grooming sessions is extremely difficult due to it being considered an extra overhead of the process (an extra 5-10% or so) and it's is often not driven by a good product owner like I think it should. Getting around this cynicism has proven difficult, and the end result has been poor backlogs that as your article suggests, have limited planning sessions effectiveness.
Charlie Cheng, CSM, 3/7/2011 5:26:52 PM
From my experience, it is very hard transforming team with dog digging method into this kind of thing. But I do believe SCRUM planning and grooming is hughly important to a team success. Try to find a way to get product owner involved. It is really hard.
Angela Druckman, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 3/7/2011 9:09:58 PM
I once had a great boss who had this to say about a troublesome client: "They never have time to do it right the first time but they always have time to do it over again." Help your Product Owners understand that THEY set the goals for this meeting. Whatever would help them make their backlog better--sizing, re-writing stories, adding acceptance criteria--the team is there to help them do. It is a wonderful opportunity but, as the comments indicate, one that needs to be driven by a focused Product Owner.
Lynn Cowan, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 3/8/2011 9:50:03 AM
I've found that scheduling standing weekly, one hour grooming sessions is the answer to a short, efficient planning meeting. At first, there is grumbling about the time spent. But after a few sprints, the value becomes apparent. One of my teams working on a new product groomed religiously twice a week for an hour with the product owner, resulting in planning meetings that lasted about 15 minutes.
Bill Leech, CSPO, 8/31/2011 5:24:15 PM
Angela, Great post. What we are trying to address are the events between the project/product vision document and the Iteration Planning. Certainly it's StoryTimes - discussing the business deliverables and discussing the technical solutions - until the set of stories are ready to introduce to the Scrum Team. Following the Agile principle, the StoryTimes should be occurring early and frequently in the project/product development life cycle.
Rory Abbott, CSM,CSPO, 9/14/2011 5:09:41 AM
I've worked with teams that have long sprint-backlog-grooming-planning meetings that take 2 hours every iteration and teams that groom regularly and sprint plan in 15 minutes. The latter is by far the more popular experience, even if it takes some pressure for the team to adopt regular backlog grooming sessions. In my mind there should be no question about what it is that we're doing when it comes to sprint planning. Sure, there may be some debate over implementation details but the value of each PBI should be clear in everyone's head.
Rajesh Francis, CSM, 9/27/2011 2:36:37 AM
This has been really helpful; I also liked your comment "They never have time to do it right the first time but they always have time to do it over again."
Rod Cortez, CSM, 11/7/2011 11:47:03 AM
I have been scheduling Backlog Grooming Sessions for my projects on non-review weeks for our 2 week Sprints. The sessions have been working well as the project team is able to size all of the future sprints and work out any additional details/requirements for the project.
Jeremy Slade, CSM, 1/14/2013 6:46:05 PM
We started doing focused, regular story time sessions 2 years ago and the transformation in Sprint planning was great. We would typically spend the best part of a day and a half planning and reduced this to a morning.
Its a great way to make sure the Product Owner and Development Team are on the same page and the team hit the ground running at Sprint planning.
Amit Malik, CSM, 9/3/2013 2:37:01 AM
Product grooming session is very useful in some scenario where product owners involvement is limited. PO, SM along with team can groom the backlog together during this session. If product owner is involved is full time in the project then I don't think you even this grooming session. PO and application architect keep working on the backlog offline.
Kingshuk Mandal, CSM,CSPO, 8/21/2014 3:18:28 PM
In the initial part of the project I scheduled daily storytime session between PO and BA/Tester and Tech lead to talk about the stories in the backlog. Once a week we would have the entire team look at the groomed stories and get their perspective to help finalize the acceptance criteria or split stories based on inputs from the whole team that also ensured that the team was aware of the pipeline and its content, that helped us change priorty and high level sizing of the stories for our long term road map planning

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