How to master backlog refinement meetings

Atlassian By Atlassian
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For Agile software development teams, maintaining a consistent understanding of the scope and context of the product is critical. Products already released to market often have a large backlog of user stories yet to be developed. Agile teams draw from the product backlog when planning sprints, and the condition of the backlog plays a significant role in the overall success of the product. 

In simple terms, backlog refinement is about keeping the product backlog up to date. Backlog refinement meetings, also known as “sessions,” are the events that allow a team to update and prepare the backlog for an upcoming sprint.   

A product backlog can be large and difficult to manage. But for good Agile project management, it is essential to master backlog refinement meetings. 

This article provides proven strategies for conducting backlog refinement meetings that keep your backlog current, clean, and organized. It explains why backlog refinement sessions are important, how to run efficient sessions, and helpful tips Agile teams have learned along the way.

The purpose of backlog refinement sessions

A backlog refinement meeting is when a project team meets to review, update, and clean its product backlog. It is crucial in any Agile methodology, as it clarifies the team’s workload for a future sprint. These meetings aim to maintain two sprints worth of items in the backlog so the team always has a fresh supply of work and can pivot to new tasks when requirements change.

“However, it is important to remember that backlog refinement meetings are not just about reviewing new work – they are also about removing backlog items that are no longer necessary,” explains Atlassian’s Modern Work Coach Mark Cruth. “If you ever feel tempted to “cancel” a backlog refinement meeting because there is no new work, consider asking yourself whether there is any work in the backlog that the team should consider removing, and bring those stories into the refinement meeting.”

In a backlog refinement meeting, like in sprint planning, product owners and development team members discuss each backlogged item, clarify its requirements, and assess its priority and complexity, resulting in a more clearly defined and actionable list of items to work on. 

By regularly conducting backlog refinement sessions, the team can ensure the development process remains agile and responsive to changing needs and priorities. Such dynamic environments require collaboration and project tracking tools like Jira, which has a backlog feature, to help managers make those changes for their teams at large.

How to run an efficient backlog refinement meeting

Agile project management begins with efficient backlog refinement meetings. The following steps will help you create a smooth and repeatable process that assembles the right people, sets expectations, prioritizes and evaluates items, and defines the next steps.

1. Review and prioritize backlogged items

Before the backlog refinement meeting can take place, the product owner needs to do an initial review of existing product backlog items (such as user stories, features, or tasks) and remove those that are no longer relevant. As a product evolves and feature requirements change, some items will no longer fit the project vision. The product owner should also implement feedback from previous sprint reviews and clear items the team decides to remove. 

The product owner should then prioritize all items that remain in the backlog, knowing this prioritization may change as the team deliberates on each item at the meeting.

“Finally, the product owner should send out the list of stories they would like to review with the team at least 24 hours before,” suggests Cruth. “This allows the team to review the list and prepare questions. By doing so, you avoid bringing the story into refinement multiple times.”

2. Create and share the meeting agenda

Like any meeting in a project management context, an agenda is essential to keep discussions on topic. Product owners can create the backlog refinement meeting agenda and collaborate with relevant team members, allowing them to give early feedback and time estimates on the items and prepare for the upcoming topics.

The agenda’s main purpose is to keep the team focused on the selected backlog items and successfully complete the refinement activities within the time set for the meeting. Atlassian’s meeting agenda template makes setting agendas, capturing notes, and sharing action items easy for Agile teams by providing a premade format for your meeting minutes.

3. Ensure necessary participants are present

Because backlog refinement meetings can involve complex discussions and sometimes run for a full hour, it is vital to invite only the needed participants. 

Who should be in the backlog refinement meeting? A typical session requires the attendance of the following team members: 

  • The product owner
  • Development team members (Scrum team) 
  • The project sponsor
  • The meeting facilitator (Scrum Master
  • A product manager (optional) 

4. Determine the right time to meet

The best time to meet depends on the length of the sprints and the complexity of the project. If a team holds weekly sprints, the project manager should have a backlog refinement session weekly. If sprints are two weeks, the project manager should plan a session every other week. If the sprints are longer than two weeks, bi-weekly sessions are still best to help the team prepare for changing priorities or unforeseen issues. 

Whatever the team decides, aim for hour-long meetings to tackle the entire backlog and ensure the product manager schedules them on the calendar and the meeting facilitator rigorously timeboxes them to avoid wasted time.

“It is important to remember that backlog refinement meetings can be async,” adds Cruth. “Consider having team members review stories on their own, leaving questions, and using the comments section in Jira to bring a story into a ready state.”

5. Evaluate the user story

For an Agile team to successfully evaluate the complexity of an item, they must have a shared understanding of the user story. User stories are informal explanations of what the feature does from the customer’s perspective.

The backlog refinement meeting is the time to examine existing user stories and evaluate whether they are still relevant to the project. This is also the time to add new user stories based on newly gathered insights or to split larger user stories into smaller ones. This continuous improvement of the user stories is an important part of the Agile process as it allows the team to identify opportunities to improve the product incrementally. 

Identify next steps and follow up

During a backlog refinement meeting, the team will identify items to include in the sprint and remove the rest. In some instances, a session can reveal multiple backlog items with the same priority, but the team might not have enough time to complete all of them. Agile planning poker cards are a helpful tool for deciding which items to move forward with and which to save for the next sprint. 

When the meeting ends, follow up by sending the meeting minutes to all participants and ensuring they understand the priority of the items discussed. Breaking down the development into action items using a tool like Jira helps keep the critical backlog components in focus. This prioritized backlog then becomes the focus of the next sprint planning session.

Benefits of productive backlog refinement sessions

When done correctly, product backlog refinement meetings contribute to overall efficiency and team productivity, and ensure project completion. The following sections outline some of the advantages of backlog refinement sessions.

Optimized backlog

These sessions declutter and optimize the process. They keep the product backlog focused and clean and ensure it is not clogged with irrelevant items.

Shared understanding

Because these meetings require the team to discuss each item in detail, the team and stakeholders develop a shared understanding of what the work requires and which items should be prioritized.

Effective sprint planning

Meeting participants can ask questions and offer feedback, resulting in streamlined sprint planning meetings. In addition, the shared understanding of the project makes sprint planning easier and quicker.

Improved collaboration

Team members come from various backgrounds and have differing views on priorities and how long items will take to complete. The refinement meeting allows members to share their views, helping them get on the same page about priorities and deadlines.

Empowered team

Team members who participate in refinement meetings take ownership of the sprint and, by extension, the project and the work required to complete it. The result is an empowered team that holds itself accountable for the outcome of each sprint.

Tips for successful backlog refinement meetings

There is an abundance of tips and strategies for conducting backlog refinement meetings. However, the following best practices have proven useful to Agile teams globally.

Keep your backlog DEEP

Roman Pichler and Mike Cohn first used the acronym DEEP to outline a way to structure a backlog to maximize its usefulness. The following are the four elements of a DEEP backlog: 

  • Detailed appropriately: Make items useful by adding details. 
  • Emergent: Add, change, or remove backlog items based on new insights into the project or with changing project requirements. 
  • Estimated: Give each item a time estimate. 
  • Prioritized: Prioritize the items in the sprint by placing items of the highest value at the top of the list.

Use a definition of ready for each item

A definition of ready (DoR) is an agreed-upon set of criteria to indicate whether a backlog item is ready for the team to work on. The DoR ensures the team understands what the work entails and can estimate the time needed for it to get done. 

Separate items into manageable chunks

A good rule of thumb for splitting work is ensuring each backlog item never takes over half a sprint to complete.  For a one-week sprint, an item that will take four days to complete might derail the schedule and should be split into two smaller items, each lasting two days.

Split refinement sessions

The first few backlog refinement meetings may take several hours. One way to keep the team focused and optimize meeting times with sponsors, product managers, and other stakeholders is to split sessions into two or more sessions, ideally lasting one hour each. This allows participants time to review backlog items and how they fit into the overall project.

“Backlog refinement is a continuous process,” says Cruth. “Don’t feel like you have to wait for the official meeting to review and refine work. If you only refine backlog items during the refinement meeting, you’ll find backlog refinement to be a drawn-out activity.”

Streamline backlog refinement meetings with Jira

Product backlog refinement meetings are essential and result in a well-maintained and prioritized product backlog. But these meetings can be time-consuming and confusing, especially if you are not using the right tools to create your backlog, record the decisions, and share them with the team.

Jira’s backlog feature makes it easy to collaborate with team members on backlog refinement. You can add comments and details to every item, assign tasks to team members, and list and prioritize items according to value or risk. Jira makes it easy to streamline your backlog refinement meetings and improves the overall project management process. Discover how it can improve your team's efficiency.

Backlog refinement meeting: Frequently asked questions

How frequently should backlog refinement sessions happen?

The frequency of backlog refinement meetings will depend on your team’s sprint cycle. The average frequency is weekly for sprints that last a week. For sprints that are two weeks or longer, a meeting every two weeks will help you maintain your backlog.

How long should backlog refinement meetings be?

There is no fixed length for a backlog refinement meeting because it depends on project complexity and the size of the product backlog. But it is a good practice to allocate two hours for the first few meetings. Once a project is underway, one-hour refinement meetings are common, and these meetings often get shorter as sprints progress.

How do you prepare for a backlog refinement session?

The product owner is largely responsible for preparing for a backlog refinement session. They should prioritize the items based on value, add necessary details to the highest priority items, and prepare the meeting agenda. Team members should read the agenda and prepare questions and feedback on the listed items.