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Backlogs - a key component of Agile

Backlogs are probably the most important part of Agile, and also the most misunderstood.

They provide an integrated set of information about what is planned, possible or happening at all levels of a project or organisation. They are also one of the easiest things to get wrong - so they give you no advantage if you do not use them well.

A backlog is not a ‘to do’ list. It replaces long-term and short-term planning. It captures possibilities and ideas. It is not a ‘pipeline’ of work that will be done, but a list of possibilities and proposals. It is a way to monitor progress and continuously improve what we do and how we do it.

It does not matter what approaches to Agile you adopt - good backlogs and backlog maintenance are essential.

Some basic ideas

Except in trivially small cases (like 3 people delivering a very simple thing), we give structure to work by breaking it down into a hierarchy. This is not done (in detail) in advance, but just to the level we can be sure of based on our current data. Hierarchies of work and backlogs are closely related

For hierarchies

{{Hmm. An article on hierarchies is needed}}

For Backlogs

Why do backlogs matter?

Backlogs are a very participatory way to organise work. They help break down silos of work and, in particular, eliminate the “plan, build, deliver” cycle of older approaches which negate the advantages of being user-centric, value-orientated and responsive.They give us a very visible, shared set of information about what we are planning and doing, and basing that on real information. This all prevents problems that can arise when organisations separate planning from delivery, or fail to be responsive to the needs of their users and stakeholders.

Used properly, then provide value to everyone at all levels, minimise the reporting overhead and ensure accuracy in the information we share about the work we are planning or doing.

{{More on value}}

Some practical backlog things

Here are some practical approaches to making good use of a backlog.

Backlog items

At each level of backlog, and for each audience who will use it, we need to ensure we have the right information and relationships captured in a backlog item to enable everyone to see what is happening and how it relates to other things in the work hierarchy. There can be lots of things in here, but there must be at least:

They are only the essentials. There is much more information that we might add, depending on its relevance. This will help people view the backlog in different ways.

Backlog structure

A backlog is not a simple list of things to do. It is much cleverer than that.

As we have already discussed, most work in a backlog has a hierarchical relationship to parent and children items. This enables us to make more accurate assessments of effort and progress. It also helps us relate a piece of work (at any level) to the value it has, the priority for its delivery and the risks and dependencies which are impacted by changes in this work.

There is more to a well structured backlog than a hierarchy of work. We can (and should) categorise items on the backlog in a variety of ways so that it is easier for different audiences to see only the things they need to see in the backlog by filtering it. These will differ for different sorts of work and different organisations, but will often include:

There can be others. These categories are probably more relevant to people outside the team than people within it, but enable efficient communication by allowing people to ‘slice’ the data in different ways and see only what is relevant to them.

Backlog usage and activities

Since the backlog is central to what we do (at all levels) it must be maintained and reviewed on a frequent basis. This is commonly referred to as “backlog maintenance”.

Tell me more

{{To do - links to more MEC details and other resources}}