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If you’re familiar with Scrum, you might have heard the term backlog grooming. Though not an official Scrum ceremony based on the official Scrum guide, Scrum practitioners have found backlog grooming an important event in their practice. But many are struggling to keep a good backlog grooming session going. And for most, it’s a painful meeting to be in.

The Problem with Backlog Grooming

When I was starting as a Product Owner (PO), I felt like backlog grooming sessions were torture for me. I had to come prepared and have answers to every question the team throws at me. The PO is perceived as this all-knowing being that can solely decide on the course of the product. But the reality is, we’re not.

Now, what about how the team feels? They spend at least 1 hour weekly to help groom stories. But in reality, they feel they’re better off coding or testing. There’s this expectation that the team also needs to come prepared and ask the right questions during the meeting.

This “unwritten rule” that both POs and development teams need to know everything before they even start grooming the backlog inflicts pain on both sides. The result? You’ve got a dysfunctional meeting which can result in a strained relationship between the PO and the development team. Your team can’t plan their sprints right because their spending more time discussing what a story is about right before they need to get it.

The key to an effective backlog grooming meeting is to understand and embrace what it is for. And that is to discover and plan what to do with the product. When you look at backlog grooming from a discovery perspective, you become more open to ask questions, collaborate, and be experimental.

We’ve rounded up 6 tips on how you can transform your backlog grooming sessions to effective product discovery meetings.

Tip #1: Build Your Discovery Team

While the PO is responsible for the backlog, we must accept the reality that the PO cannot flesh out the backlog alone. To better prepare for the backlog grooming sessions with the development team, the PO needs to have sufficient understanding of both the business need and technical feasibility of the features they are to build. This is done with consultation and constant collaboration with those who understand the customer needs (business stakeholders) and those who know how to develop the product (development team).

This is what we call the product discovery team.

While you would most certainly benefit from having actual customers in your team, it’s not always possible. But you can find customer proxies within your organization. You can tap members of your customer support, sales and marketing, and research and development teams to join your product discovery team.

Meet with your team regularly, ideally every week, to review the backlog and ensure you’re moving towards your goals. This meeting is called the Product Backlog Planning meeting. Discussions during this meeting are more high-level than in backlog grooming sessions.

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Tip #2: Let the Team Opt-In

To have productive meetings, you need to have engaged participants. You won’t achieve this when you have people who don’t even want to be in your meeting. To combat this, you can offer optional attendance to your meeting. But what if no one shows up, you might ask?

A ground-rule you can enforce with your team for this setup is you should have all functional groups represented by at least one member. This way, your discussions are balanced and has a complete perspective of all functions in the team. You can create a weekly calendar where your backlog grooming schedules are plotted and let your members sign up. I recommend you indicate what stories you’ll be discussing for each session so your team members can decide whether they want to attend or not.

Tip #3: Keep Your Meetings Short

No one wants to be stuck at a long meeting. While there’s no rule as to how long backlog grooming sessions should take, the ideal meeting duration is between 45 minutes to an hour. Others would keep their sessions even shorter, say 25 to 30 minutes each, but would increase the frequency to 3 to 4 times a week.

Tip #4: Refine Just-in-Time

We know that product requirements can change. When you’re refining stories that are too far ahead in the future, you’re wasting your team’s time. It’s important to keep discussions to stories that you’re planning to take within 2 to 3 sprints in the future. Anything more than that is overkill.

Tip #5: Break It Down

Determining when you need to decompose a complex story can get tricky when you’re just starting with story estimation. But as you work on stories sprint-by-sprint, you’ll be able to identify what your team’s limit is. When you observe that 13-point stories usually cause your team to miss their commitments, it’s a sign that you should aim for smaller sized stories moving forward.

Tip #6: Discovery Over Documentation

Teams have this idea that backlog grooming sessions are done so they can document requirements. Wrong! Refinement sessions are meant to discover requirements collaboratively. It is a venue to discuss what it means to get a story done. I find that teams are more engaged when they can discuss more freely instead of looking at the screen while someone types in what everyone else is saying.

When you animate your backlog grooming sessions, you activate your team’s imagination. They become more invested in the session. Think of discussions over drawings on the board, prototypes, wireframes, or even just simple storyboards on paper.

Bringing It All Together

If you want things to go smoothly during Sprint Planning, you must do your pre-work during backlog grooming sessions. When you involve your team in shaping your product backlog, Sprint Planning becomes easier because they already know what it would take to deliver a story.

The key to an engaged team is involvement and ownership. When you involve your team in product discovery, you extend the product ownership to them. This helps them better appreciate the effort that they do for the product and your organization as a whole.

Have any other ideas to keep your team engaged during backlog grooming sessions? Share it with everyone through the comments below.

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.