A large Product Backlog is pointless

Product Backlog Sep 9, 2019

On the benefits of keeping your Product Backlog short and fresh

Before I start talking about the futility of a long Product Backlog, I will first talk about my personal morning ritual. But don’t worry, I promise to tie it all back to the Product Backlog in the end.

Each morning I make two cappuccinos on my semi-automatic espresso machine. One for me and a second one for my significant other. It’s one of my favorite moments of the day.

It is incredibly satisfying to make a good cappuccino. If you haven’t done it before on a semi-automatic machine: it’s not as easy as it seems, so show your local barista some appreciation :-).

A key challenge, apart from pulling a good shot of espresso and frothing dense milk foam, is having enough fresh milk in your refrigerator.

If you buy too much milk, it will go stale and you need to throw it away. If you buy too little milk then you will run out.

Running out of milk means you start our day with an espresso instead of a cappuccino. Boy does that make me grumpy!

You should treat your Product Backlog like milk: you should have just enough for the near future but no more. Otherwise your Product Backlog will become stale and it will take effort to make fresh again.

How can Product Backlog Items become stale?

There are many reasons for Product Backlog Items to become stale:

  1. The work no longer is important due to a change of direction in the company.
  2. It was already fixed as part of another issue, either accidentally or on purpose.
  3. It will become obsolete due to another feature we will work on in the near future.
  4. The solution direction of the feature is no longer applicable due to architectural changes. The whole backlog item needs to be reworked and re-estimated.
  5. Due to new insights, we know the backlog item will actually not solve the problem it intends to solve.

The list of reasons I provided is not exhaustive. There are many more reasons that can cause a Product Backlog Item to go stale.

The best way to prevent a Product Backlog from going stale is by keeping it small and fresh. This way Product Backlog Items are finished before they have a chance to become stale.

Keep your Product Backlog small and fresh

By keeping your Product Backlog short you prevent the following forms of waste, as they are known in Lean:

  1. Waste of overproduction. Refining a lot more than what needs to be refined. Just refine what you need now, who knows what the future brings?
  2. Waste of stock at hand. A long backlog usually contains a lot of noise and this will drown out the signal of the items that are actually valuable. A long Product Backlog distracts from what is actually valuable to do next.

To express it in more simple terms, by keeping your backlog short you ensure:

  • Product Backlog Items are based on the latest and greatest insights.
  • Less rework will be necessary to keep backlog items fresh.
  • You will discuss less things you will never work on.

By keeping your Product Backlog fresh you make everybody’s life easier. Don’t be a hoarder and get rid of what you do not need. Or as expressed in a much nicer way:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman

Remove the unnecessary so the necessary may speak.