The backlog is the heart of any high-performing Agile marketing team. Like the heart in our bodies, it’s vitally important that it functions properly.
Unfortunately, many teams struggle with prioritization, scope, and sizing of the work in their backlogs. This tends to have such far-reaching consequences that it can lead to delays, frustration, and poor work quality across the board. If you’ve got an unorganized backlog, it can undermine your Agile team’s efforts and will likely result in doing the wrong work at the wrong time and not achieving your goals.
Taking proper care of the team backlog and succeeding as a unit are intertwined. Keeping the backlog healthy is also a recurring task that is worth mastering. That’s why we’re sharing some best practices for backlog refinement that will help you spend less time dealing with chaos and more time getting the right work done on time.
What is a Backlog?
No matter what framework you’re using, the team level backlog is an essential component of good Agile marketing. It is a prioritized list of all the team’s work for the upcoming months. Not everything can be a top priority, which is why the most important action items sit at the top of the backlog and the less important, lower priority work rests at the bottom.
In the backlog, each team member can see all of their upcoming work as well as what is coming up next for the team at large.
But backlogs are more than just prioritized to-do lists on the team level. They are a powerful tool for generating value and facilitating collaboration between team members and stakeholders.
What Does a Backlog Contain
All your team’s upcoming, unstarted work goes into the backlog. This can include smaller, bite-sized tasks as well as larger projects, depending on the level of granularity your team prefers. The backlog is a place for ALL unstarted work to live. Both recurring, administrative tasks that the team undertakes as well as loftier, strategic initiatives will be described in the team backlog to provide a holistic picture of what the team will be working on.
If something isn’t in the backlog, it’s not going to get done because it’s not on your team’s radar.
Work items in the team backlog tend to be visualized and prioritized at the start of the team workflow in order to ensure the smooth completion of work in a timely manner (more on that below).
Who Is Responsible for Maintaining the Backlog
The marketing or product owner is responsible for keeping the backlog updated and detailed. To do this, they should have deep knowledge of the team’s capacity and capabilities as well as the organization’s business needs. This allows marketing owners to draw a connection between what the team is doing on a daily basis and the business vision as a whole. As a result, the owner can make intelligent and informed decisions about what should rise to the top of the backlog and what can float to the bottom.
What is Backlog Refinement
Backlog refinement is a team meeting facilitated by the marketing or product owner, during which the team, as a group, reviews the backlog items, evaluates what’s ready to start, prioritizes the pieces of work, and adds details.
This is also known as backlog grooming and should be done regularly as a preamble to the team’s official planning moment.
An effective backlog refinement provides opportunities for:
- the team to ask clarifying questions about new work in their to-do list
- the marketing owner to introduce new work items with helpful context
- both the team and the marketing owner to align around the priority, status, origin and considerations associated with upcoming work
For every planning meeting your team has in the calendar, there should be a backlog refinement to support it.
The Golden Rules of Agile Marketing Backlogs
Maintaining a healthy backlog can be challenging, especially for marketing teams that receive new work requests daily. To keep your priorities straight and the team’s work sharp, there are a few golden rules you may want to follow with your team members:
One backlog per team
To keep sight of priorities coming down the pipeline, every team should have a single dedicated backlog. Working from multiple project backlogs will only make prioritization and management more difficult.
One team per person
Ideally, each member of an Agile marketing team belongs only to one team. If you do find yourself needing experts to sit on a few teams, just don’t go overboard or you risk overwhelming your scarce resources. Two should be the max. Otherwise, organizational problems can quickly arise as there’s no clear way to know which backlog should take priority.
Backlogs are living documents
To function effectively, the backlog needs constant attention and maintenance. That is why having an owner who is accountable for the backlog is essential. Consider your marketing owner as the caretaker and gatekeeper of the backlog, making sure the backlog reflects the current reality and continues to be a single source of truth for your team.
Clear intake and output process
Every backlog needs clear guidelines on how your team will operate within it. Team members and stakeholders should know what procedures to follow for getting work in and out of the backlog. Explicit policies about the team’s intake process and acceptance criteria or definitions of done go a long way to keeping the backlog manageable.
Using an intake form for stakeholder requests ensures that requests that come into the team contain the necessary information for the marketing owner to evaluate them. For example, an explicit policy that states new work requests must have a defined deadline and a t-shirt size to indicate level of difficulty from the perspective of the stakeholder are common in fast-paced environments.
Definitions of done and acceptance criteria are also applied to the team’s visual workflow in order to create a shared understanding about when a work item is ready to be delivered back to the stakeholder who requested it or the end customer, depending on the work.
Explicit policies are also helpful in circumstances when the marketing owner gets sick or goes on vacation. If the entire team is clear on the guidelines, anyone can potentially step into that role temporarily, ensuring things continue to move smoothly.
What a Good Backlog Looks Like
The backlog cannot function as the team's engine if items aren’t properly prioritized. It should be clear which tasks are of the utmost importance (and value) at any given time. Each item should also have all the information needed for a team member to begin work on it.
Otherwise, an urgent task might be deprioritized by mistake or work might be started without critical information that should influence how it is developed. In both cases, the team can end up wasting a lot of time and resources and suffering overwhelm and frustration during the work process.
Developing and maintaining a healthy backlog that reflects the current state of work and what’s next for your team.
Marketers who want to stay focused on the most impactful work should keep their backlog DEEP:
You can imagine the backlog as a team level to-do list that is stacked based on how much value a piece of work will bring. Highest value works means highest priority work, which translates to work that should be done first.
What ends up at the top of the backlog is likely to be started soon by the team. To keep the work initiation process efficient, team members work alongside their marketing owner to ensure that the work at the top is also the most detailed.
Teams spend extra time during backlog refinement sessions fleshing out their upcoming work, adding information they know they’ll need down the road to get started in the right way.
It’s a good practice to estimate the level of effort work will take. Whether you’re using Scrum, Kanban, or a hybrid approach, you shouldn’t skip this step. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do this and none of them include trying to guesstimate how many hours, minutes and seconds you’ll spend on a piece of work.
The backlog should always match current conditions and react to changing circumstances. As the information about action items emerges, the backlog has to change to reflect that. Some possible scenarios that might affect the backlog include:
- New market research or requirements changes the priority
- Stakeholder shares new opportunity that is more promising
- Customer feedback influences what is most valuable in the moment
- Industry news shifts customer expectations
In some industries, changes that affect the team’s backlog prioritization can happen daily or even multiple times a day.
Backlogs are not stacked only based on what the most persistent stakeholders want from our team. Marketing teams don’t thrive when they’re treated like short order cooks.
An effectively prioritized backlog is stacked from top to bottom based on business and customer value (hopefully, these are connected in your world). That’s why it’s important to prioritize the most impactful items and leave the ones that have less of a chance of generating value at the bottom. Possible frameworks for prioritization may include:
- Eisenhower Matrix
- Cost of Delay
- Marketing Project Scorecard
- Custom Prioritization Framework
There are many more prioritization frameworks to choose from and none are always the right choice for every circumstance. Browse this list to get acquainted with some of your options.
How to Refine Your Agile Backlog
Letting your backlog get outdated is somewhat like taking your hands off the wheel of a moving car.
Chaotic backlogs can harm team performance and slow down the work process significantly. That’s why one of the most important responsibilities of a marketing owner is to frequently refine the backlog so that it reflects the current priorities by being the liaison between the team, their stakeholders, customers and the C-suite.
Marketing owners, below you’ll find some useful approaches that will come in handy when you’re determining the urgency of each piece of work so you can prioritize in the smartest way and consolidate all the information you’re receiving.
Good planning can’t exist without ruthless prioritization. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’. Realistically, all items in the backlog can’t have the same priority, despite what some stakeholders might demand. Ruthlessly prioritizing is challenging, yet critically important, especially for marketers who have multiple stakeholders, teams, or business units.
If an Agile marketing team has the responsibility to create copy, images, and new articles for different stakeholders who all think their work is the most urgent, it comes down to the marketing owner to decide which one will produce the most value and therefore be the priority for the cross-functional team.
Measure Your Cost of Delay
Marketing owners frequently measure the cost of delay for each item in the backlog to improve their prioritization. The impact of delaying one item on your backlog in favor of another can be quantified using the cost of delay formula, originally introduced by Don Reinertsen.
Cost of delay is an easy method to evaluate approximately how much the team stands to gain from delivering a piece of work. Applying this approach, you’re able to prioritize efficiently and explain to stakeholders why certain items have higher priority than others at a certain point in time.
As a result, Agile marketing teams are able to increase efficiency and produce more value with less resources by prioritizing the backlog based on the cost of delaying each of their deprioritized campaigns in favor of a prioritized one.
Backlogs Refinement for Scrum Marketing Teams
If you’ve worked within or alongside a Scrum team before, you’ll hear them refer to two types of backlogs.
This is because Scrum teams work from two types of team-level to-do lists – the general backlog and the Sprint backlog. The general backlog contains all the items for the upcoming months while the sprint backlog contains high priority work items only for the upcoming period of active work.
During a Sprint planning meeting, the marketing owner and team will gather to decide what they want to bring into the upcoming Sprint backlog and transfer it to indicate their focus in the upcoming weeks.
The Scrum Guide suggests that backlog refinement should take 10% of your total sprint length. For example, a 2-week sprint requires roughly a day of refinement. That may seem like an unreasonably long period to discuss priorities, but as your team and stakeholders get used to the process, the time required for refinement will shorten.
Backlogs Refinement for Kanban Marketing Teams
Kanban marketing teams don’t work in sprints, so there isn’t a set timeframe to plan for. You can take care of the backlog daily, weekly, monthly, or whenever works best for you. This is referred to as just-in-time backlog refinement.
When new, unplanned work requests come into the backlog, Kanban marketing teams need to decide whether the items will remain in the backlog or not, as opposed to re-prioritizing the entire workload. This process is called triaging the backlog. The team and stakeholders discuss if the tasks in the backlog are important enough to warrant the team's attention in the near future or can be deprioritized for later.
Why You Should Regularly Refine Your Backlog
Skipping regular backlog refinement can lead to failing priorities, a lack of shared purpose, and poor quality work. On the other hand, the benefits of getting it right can skyrocket your efficiency.
Reduced Planning Time
Your actual planning meetings will be far more efficient and less time-consuming if your backlog is properly updated. As a result, you can identify the items with the greatest impact quickly, without long debates over whether or not they should even be in the backlog in the first place.
The Right Work Gets Done
Refining the backlog makes it possible for the team to select a task from the backlog at any time, and begin working on it without asking anyone for additional context. This is especially helpful when delays occur. Instead of waiting on someone to recover from being sick or get off a call, the team can pull the next item with high priority so the work can continue to flow.
If your backlog is properly managed, you won’t need as many meetings and resources to achieve alignment. All syncs, updates, and chats etc. will be rolled up into backlog refinement. As a result, having fewer meetings will allow you to spend more time strategizing, and team members can actually free up some of their productive time to do their work.
Organized Backlog = Stronger Teams
Backlogs always evolve alongside the team, just like every other part of Agile marketing. To nail the backlog, teams in the early stage of Agile adoption will need more detail about the requested work upfront, frequent touchpoints amongst each other, and deeper conversations about the value their work brings, not just the deadline.
When used properly, backlogs are incredibly effective tools that can boost overall team performance. No matter how different it might feel, make sure you put in the effort to create a strong initial backlog. After that, maintaining it and optimizing it should be an ongoing endeavor, led by the marketing owner, but shared with the team.
Keeping your backlog DEEP using the tools discussed in this article is the key to unlocking the efficiency of your Agile marketing team. Ready to refine?