Scrum Rules: The Product Backlog

June 23, 2020
3 minute read

Organizations often need to plan their product development further than just the next week or so. The Product Backlog is the artifact of Scrum that considers anything beyond the current Sprint.

This artifact embodies every bit of knowledge about the possible future of the work. There are many techniques for using the Product Backlog for long-term planning. The Scrum Guide does not, however, recommend any particular long-term planning techniques.

That the Product Backlog embodies knowledge of the future is seemingly contradictory to the foundation of Scrum in empiricism. However, Scrum puts no lower limit on the number of items on the Backlog or how little they extend into the future. A perfectly acceptable Product Backlog could have exactly one item that is estimated to confidently fit into a Sprint. It is ordered – although this is the degenerate case – and it is refined. Of course, very few teams work with extremely short-term Product Backlogs. Most teams are faced with an almost unlimited amount of stuff to get done.

The benefit of shoving lots of stuff into the Product Backlog is that it then gets out of our heads. Trying to keep track of lots of “to-dos” or “requirements” just with memory is stressful and error prone for most people. The Product Owner alleviates the collective angst about the future of the Product by adding any and every idea to the list. The Product Backlog, therefore, often grows quite extensive with lots of stuff that will never be selected into a Sprint for implementation. This then creates a different kind of anxiety contrasting the reality of a never-ending list with the desire to finish.

But product development, unlike project management, doesn’t have a known end-condition. Product Development, for a successful product, can go on and on and on, sometimes for decades (Coca-Cola). Somehow a Product Owner needs to balance competing anxieties and do it all with the Product Backlog. Too short and people worry about what the future will bring. Too long and people worry that the future will never come. Can we “goldilocks” the Product Backlog? Can we make it “just right”?!

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Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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