Scrum Advice: Creating the First Product Backlog

Scrum methodology is gaining recognition as an effective way to manage development projects. So, I thought it might be a good time to talk about some of the main elements of the Scrum framework for the PMs and managers out there. A good place to start is with the “Product Backlog” – which for the novice could be equated loosely to the functional requirements list.

The Scrum product backlog delineates the functions required to provide the outcome desired by the product owner. According to Ken Schwaber in “Agile Software Development with Scrum”, the backlog includes a list of all the functionality, features and technology needed to complete a development project.

Although the product backlog sounds like the requirements document used in traditional waterfall software development methodology, it is not. Don McGreal, VP of Training at Improving Enterprises, LLC and my Scrum trainer, describes what happened in his experience to requirements documents under traditional software development methodologies, “Never did we ever build what we first came up with in the requirements phase.” In the project close out to assess how well the system met the specified requirements, we didn’t. We would ask, ‘what went wrong’ and there was a blame game or a lot of excuses about unplanned for events. The managers would then decide that the solution for next time was to make the requirements more detailed – more time should be spent upfront on creating the complete requirements.

However, spending more time trying to create a perfect requirements document at the beginning of a project is doomed to failure. Admit it, says Don (and I agree completely), before anything is built, “users, customers, even experienced practitioners cannot specify everything that should be built.” Instead of spending weeks, months or even years creating a comprehensive requirements document in the beginning, Scrum practices acknowledge that requirements will change during development and recommends creating only an initial list of things the product or system needs to do.

The first product backlog is based on a vision, business analysis and even marketing promises. The initial list gets the team started working on functionality quickly. During the development, the requirements listed in the prioritized product backlog — which is updated before each sprint — will evolve into what can and should be done using empirical data gained by writing and testing code.

Creating the product backlog is the responsibility of the product owner. He or she may create a high level description of the end product’s capability as a vision statement or concept of operations. The product owner may get inspiration from user stories of what they do currently and what would make their tasks easier. There is a real art to collecting useful user stories. I suggest:

  • Having many conversations with potential users. Carry a set of index cards to the meeting. On each card there is a sentence that begins, “As a _________________, I need to do _______________.” This simple format device gives the product owner a concise statement of a requirement.
  • Holding a brainstorming session with a small group of users and facilitating discussion about what they need to do their jobs. Having several people talking together creates an environment where one person’s comment will stimulate the thinking of others.
  • Working with customers, create a scenario that walks a user through an entire series of steps needed to achieve a successful interaction with the system. Each step in the scenario can be an item in the initial product backlog. Add scenarios for many types of user’s needs.
  • Meeting with the development team to review the vision and initial product backlog. Add items to the backlog to accommodate identified needs for further research or infrastructure requirements needed to get started.

From these activities, the product manager builds the prioritized initial product backlog. The product manager gives the team a presentation of the product vision and the product backlog list. The team and the Scrum master meet to plan the first sprint, which may achieve completing the highest priority task or may break that high priority task into several sprint tasks.

Remember that Scrum’s power comes from iteratively evaluating product backlog priorities and tasks. As Project Managers we have been doing this for years in order to make sure the project goals are still valid.  Over time new tasks are added to the backlog. Each sprint planning meeting accepts the highest priority tasks that can be completed during the next sprint.  At the end of a sprint, the team delivers the demonstrable functionality of the backlog task, revisits how the deliverable fits within the product vision and identifies the next priority tasks from the product backlog.

The above ideas are methods I have found successful to create the initial product backlog. If you have techniques you find particularly useful to begin the Scrum backlog generation, please share.

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