Confession time: how old is the oldest item in your backlog right now?
I hope you’re talking about days or weeks, but if you’re measuring age in months or even years don’t be ashamed. Keeping the backlog manageable is a never ending task, particularly for Agile marketers. In Agile software development you’ll often hear the phrase “Product Backlog,” but marketers don’t have a product backlog because we’re not building a product.
Oftentimes we’re marketing a product, but that doesn’t mean our backlog is product-centered. Even if we are promoting a new feature rollout, we’ve also got to represent ongoing work, like social media and content marketing, in our backlog. There’s also marketing work unrelated to product developments, which might include in-person events, influencer outreach, website maintenance, and lead nurturing.
When your backlog contains all things marketing, it can get out of hand really quickly. But if you’ve got a jumble of unordered, unprioritized tasks driving your Agile team’s efforts, you’ll likely find yourselves doing the wrong work at the wrong time very quickly. Here’s how to manage the scope and size of your backlog more effectively so you can pull your next project with confidence.
Why We Have Backlogs
Whether you’re using Scrum, Kanban, or Scrumban, the backlog is the engine that runs your Agile marketing team. I often describe Agile backlogs as a prioritized to-do list, but they’re actually a lot more powerful than the most beautifully crafted to-do list could ever be. The main reason that backlogs > to-do lists is that backlogs represent the input of multiple people, whereas to-do lists typically just come from one person’s brain. Backlogs come from the collaboration of stakeholders, team members, managers, and the audience, which makes them an ideal place from which marketers can pull their work.
When properly created and maintained, backlogs show us what work will produce the most value right now, as well as what we’re likely to be working on in the future. Not everything can be top priority right now, but a backlog shows us the work that is. Also, because a variety of people contribute to the backlog’s composition, it breeds harmony between the marketing team and its stakeholders. So, backlogs do a lot. They keep the team on track. They give external customers a voice in what the team is working on. They allow the team to adapt continuously to changes in the market. They maintain a connection with what’s happening in the rest of the organization. Clearly, it’s worth our time to keep our backlogs healthy.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Backlogs
Unfortunately, backlogs often slide in disrepair due to neglect. Or, they get too much attention and balloon to monstrous proportions. Let’s take a look at bad and ugly backlogs before we settle on what makes a backlog “good.”
Backlogs typically go bad when they’re neglected. Their contents go stale, reflecting outdated priorities for a market that no longer exists. When this happens, a team will pull in a new project and start working enthusiastically. Then, at a review meeting, a stakeholder wonders why on earth so much time was spent on this initiative. They’re frustrated, because there was more important work the team could have been doing.
The team is disheartened, feeling like failures even if the work they did is successful. It’s an annoying moment for everyone, but its ramifications are serious. Stakeholders lose trust in the Agile marketing team because they realize the team may not be doing the right work at the right time after all. The team, in turn, loses confidence in the next piece of work that’s at the top of the backlog. What if it’s not the most important thing? They start second guessing themselves, asking for approval instead of starting work.
Output slows, morale declines, and the quality of work takes a dip.
Ugly backlogs usually suffer from an excess of attention. Work flows in from all corners of an organization, creating a log jam of potential projects that boggle the mind. No one -- not the team, stakeholders, managers, or even the people who submitted the work in the first place -- can identify its relative importance (or its potential impact). The marketing team is left to muddle through the mess, trying to figure out what they should be doing at any given time and never knowing if someone is about to swoop down on them and demand to know why their request hasn’t been delivered. The outcome of ugly backlogs is often similar to that of bad backlogs: trust amongst internal groups erodes, and the marketing team loses confidence in their current workload.
A good backlog, on the other hand, isn’t too big or too small. Like baby bear’s porridge, it’s just right.
Key contributors meet regularly to keep it looking its best, which makes planning faster and marketers more confident. Communication gaps are fewer, and trust is high. Everyone believes that marketing is focusing its attention on the most impactful work. Good product backlogs are DEEP:
- Detailed appropriately depending on their current priority. High priority items at the top are more detailed than those at the bottom that won’t be worked on in the near future.
- Estimated, or at least categorized. Scrum teams will want to estimate project sizes in order to fit them into a Sprint, while Kanban teams will need to determine what type of work item they’re dealing with so they can pull it into their workflow at the right time.
- Emergent based on changing conditions. The state of backlog should emerge continuously based on incoming information about the audience, the market, and the success (or lack thereof) of previously-released work.
- Prioritized according to current business value. The most important items are at the top, the ones least likely to add value are at the bottom.
Grooming, Refinement, and Triage
To get your backlog out of bad or ugly territory, you need to commit to managing it regularly. This is referred to as backlog grooming or refinement on Scrum teams, while Kanban teams often call it triage.
Backlogs for Scrum Marketing Teams
There’s an emerging preference for the term “refinement” over “grooming,” because grooming sounds like we might be making our backlogs pretty without making them more effective. Refinement, on the other hand, sounds like it’s concerned with fine-tuning, not just aesthetics. It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you’re committed to maintaining your backlog on a regular cadence.
Product owners and other stakeholders for Scrum teams need to meet several days in advance of a Sprint Planning meeting. This schedule allows enough time for the Product Owner to deal with any blocks or issues that come up before the next iteration begins. According to the Scrum Guide, backlog refinement should take about 10% as long as your total sprint. So a 2-week sprint needs about 1 day’s worth of refinement time. That may sound like an absurdly long time to talk about priorities, but it will go down as your team and its stakeholders get more accustomed to the process.
Agile Marketers and Kanban Triage
On a Kanban marketing team, there’s no Sprint timebox to prepare for. That means you can address your backlog at whatever interval makes sense for you, be it weekly, monthly, or every other day (that might be too often).
Also, while Scrum marketing teams need to devote time to stack-ranking their backlog items, Kanban teams are less concerned with such prioritization. Scrum marketing teams pull work in large batches each Sprint, so they’ll be grabbing a big chunk off the top of the backlog during their next iteration. Kanban marketing teams, however, will only be taking in new work when a spot opens up in their work flow.
This happens often -- generally multiple times per day -- but you won’t have dozens of tasks being pulled in at once like you would on a Scrum marketing team. So instead of re-prioritizing and refining items in the backlog, a Kanban marketing team just needs to decide if an item should stay or go. This is known as Triage. Stakeholders meet and decide if items in the backlog are still worthy of the team’s time in the near future. If so, they stay. If not, they go. Prioritization will happen as spots open up in the Agile marketing team’s ready queue, so it doesn’t have to be part of backlog triage on a Kanban team.
Two Big Benefits of Managed Backlogs
This may sound like a whole lot of bother, but there are two huge reasons why you should take the time to maintain your backlog:
- Planning takes far less time.
- Your Agile marketing team will always be working on the right thing.
Reduced Planning Time
Whether it’s multi-hour Sprint Planning or a scheduled queue replenishment meeting, it will be far more efficient if you’re working with an up-to-date backlog. Without backlog refinement or triage, you have to debate the validity and value of each item in the backlog before you can decide whether it deserves the team’s attention next. When the backlog is nicely updated, you can jump straight into identifying the most impactful current projects without arguing over whether that work should even be there in the first place.
Right Work, Right Time
If your software team has pushed back the release of their newest feature for six weeks, but your Agile marketing team is planning to devote their next Sprint to promoting it, they’re probably not doing the right work at the right time. Backlog refinement ensures that the team could grab a piece of work from the backlog at any given time and start work on it without asking anybody. If it happens regularly, it would move promotional work for the delayed feature farther down the list, ensuring a nearly real-time connection between marketing work and market conditions.
Backlogs Evolve With a Team
It’s important to realize that backlogs, like every component of an Agile marketing team, will change with the team. A team in its early stages of adoption will need more detail, more frequent meetings, and longer discussions to get their backlog where it needs to be. When stakeholders, managers, and team members establish an effective working relationship and the team gets used to working off a backlog, it’s likely that backlog refinement will be less time-consuming. However long it takes, make sure you spend the time to produce a solid backlog. Steer clear of the bad and ugly versions, or you’ll risk hobbling your Agile marketing team’s effectiveness.