I’ve been a productivity addict my entire life. I distinctly remember my grandfather giving me a tiny, lined notebook when I was six and struggling to properly spell “schedule” at the top of a page.
As an adult I’ve dived into practically every system out there that claims to have the perfect path to maximize my time. Then, while working at a software company, I discovered the Agile framework known as Scrum.
This system was originally designed to help software teams work together better, but it’s all driven by the best friend of productivity addicts: a to-do list.
But not just any to-do list.
An Agile version, often called a backlog, comes with subtle distinctions that make it far more powerful than the ones I’d been using since my six-year-old self discovered the joy of checking things off.
Having now used a backlog for over six years, as well as implemented them with dozens of Agile teams, I can’t overstate their impact. So whether you’re a solopreneur or a member of a struggling team, here’s how to take your overwhelming to-do list and turn it into an Agile backlog.
How Agile Backlogs Work
The core idea behind a backlog is you get everything out of people’s heads and into a shared, visualized list. We devote extra time to backlog building at predetermined moments so we can avoid delays later on.
While it can be challenging at times to carve out this time, think about how many projects you started only to have them stall half-way when you realized you didn’t have all the information you needed to finish.
Getting everyone together who’s part of getting the work done and making sure they all agree on what belongs in the backlog will save you hours of time (and frustration).
But remember, a backlog isn’t just a to-do list. It’s better.
Not only is the backlog a shared document that reflects everyone’s understanding of the work, it’s also ruthlessly prioritized. This means high value work goes at the top. Low value work falls to the bottom.
Over time, as you or your team finishes the work from the top, room is created and new work enters the top position.
This continuous flow helps keep the backlog dynamic and reflected of what’s most important for you or your team at any time.
Creating a Well PACED Backlog
To give a more complete picture of backlogs and how they work, in my book "Mastering Marketing Agility," I use the acronym PACED:
Let’s look at each in turn.
There can be no side-by-side priorities in a good backlog. It must be ruthlessly prioritized, meaning there's one top priority, one second priority, and so on to the bottom.
The team (or yourself if you’re a team of one) will always pull work from the top of the backlog, so list the most important tasks there. The leader of the team is responsible for maintaining the prioritization based on their understanding of bigger strategic goals.
In general, the backlog’s priorities should ensure the team’s doing the right work at the right time.
The content of any item in the backlog should accurately reflect the current understanding of that piece of work. If new information emerges after data comes in, the item needs an update.
If we thought it would be due next month but the delivery requirements have changed, the item needs to reflect that.
The backlog isn’t a “set it and forget it” tool.
We don’t refine it once a quarter. We update it constantly as new information comes to light.
Whether a team lead chooses continuous refinement or recurring weekly meetings, the backlog should never be out of date or stale.
In an Agile environment, a major part of a team lead’s job is to hunt down requirements and specifications for the work their team has been asked to do. Some of the essentials will come out during planning sessions, but others will need to be collected prior to work beginning.
When we accept that we can’t create a perfect plan up front, we also have to embrace the practice of continually adjusting projects in response to incoming data. All these activities should be reflected in a good backlog.
Tasks look different depending on where they fall in a backlog. The team or individual using the backlog will start working on things at the top very soon, which means those tasks need a much higher level of detail than tasks at the bottom.
In fact, spending a lot of time chasing down information on low-priority items is a form of waste, because some of them might never make it to the top of the backlog.
Although the backlog represents nearly all the work we know about, we do want to be agile. As things change, low-priority items might get pulled. They may also get delayed by emerging opportunities. In either case, we don’t need to worry about collecting detailed requirements for tasks until they break into the top quarter of the backlog.
Building and Refining Your Backlog
If you’re in a smaller organization where outlining the detailed flow of work from executive strategies to team activities isn’t necessary, you can generate a backlog simply by listing all your upcoming activities and ruthlessly prioritizing them.
Remember, your backlog contains all the work you’re doing, not just big projects.
When it’s created for a team or individual who’s going to be executing it day-to-day, a backlog should contain right-sized work. In general that means each work item or task would take a couple of people a few days to complete.
It’s easy to get hung up on the right level of granularity, but remember not every item in your backlog has to be exactly the same size. We place things into our backlog to gain visibility into all the work we could be doing, which then allows us to prioritize those things against one another.
Backlogs reveal the true scope of work a team is tackling, allowing us to fend off external requests if necessary. We can achieve both these outcomes without precision in size of tasks.
A Backlog By Any Other Name ...
In my book, I dropped the name “backlog” and instead referred to this supercharged to-do list as a queue. They work practically the same way — it’s just a matter of branding.
For some folks, “backlog” means a place where work goes to die. It denotes neglect or hypothetical work, when in fact it’s the engine driving all the work being done.
So if the backlog comes with too much baggage, feel free to rebrand your new list as a queue, or whatever term suits you. You may find, now that you’re so much more productive, it won’t matter much what you call your secret weapon.