Nuke your backlog?

When I deliver “Honey, I shrunk the backlog” and when I tell people “Nuke the backlog” there are a few questions and talking points which come up again and again. So, if you read my last post and have been asking yourself how you live with a backlog you want to nuke… read on…

Lead with goals

“My boss won’t stand for me deleting the backlog” I empathise. I know it happens.

At the same time I wonder: does your boss really care? – I’m sure some of them do, I see many Product Owners who are really “Backlog administrators.” Their boss is certainly leaning over their shoulder checking on what being done. If this is your case then your boss is the real Product Owner, sorry to say this but you are really a goffer.

In this case you want to educate your boss, you want to start having discussions about a better way. This is going to be a long and hard path. There is no sure fire advice I could give you here, except to suggest you give me a call.

Assuming your boss give you some leeway then go and start a conversation about your bigger goals. Beyond “delivering backlog items” what are the goals your goals? More specifically, what are driving at for the next 10 weeks?

Start to have a conversation about goals bigger than backlog items. Build a routine, a super cycle, around your sprints with the boss and team to discuss bigger goals. Then, during the cycle drive with the goals. If there is a suitable backlog items that contributes towards the goal(s) then do it. If not, write it out and do it immediately.

Either way, whether you are doing this to work around a boss or as a mechanism to tradition to a backlog-less world the same idea applies: create a super cycle, set goals every 10 weeks (approximately) and then drive through the goals rather than the backlog.

Drive with the goals and put the backlog in the back seat, it is secondary. The aim is to avoid nuking the backlog by letting it fad into irrelevance.

Write an “use by” expiry date on new backlog items.

For any item you do add to the backlog make sure it has an expiry date. That is: a date after which it will be removed from the backlog. Giving every backlog item a life expectancy won’t help you today, but it does mean that in the months ahead some items will “self delete” from the backlog.

After a while you might want to visit older items in the backlog and (if you can’t delete them immediately) assign them “use by” date.

I am sure a few people will say “O this need will live for ever.” In which case you can put a long date on it, say 10 years. But that also tells you: there is no urgency. You can do this item anytime in the next 10 years and add value, it can wait.

Better still, write a “best before” and a “use by” date on the item.

The best before date will tell you the date by which an item should be done to maximise benefit. After that date the benefit will decline, it might still be worth doing but it is not as beneficial. The “use by” date now tells you the date on which it has no benefit.

Now when you are reviewing the backlog you can see which items can be pushed back and which items need doing sooner. This is a little bit of a double edged sword for the requester, if they say “If I don’t have it in 2 months it will start loosing value” then it is more urgent, but also if it doesn’t make the cut soon then it can be removed soon.

Keep an ideas list

When you have a great idea, or when someone suggests something you could do add it to an ideas list – not the backlog. In fact, don’t show the list to people, don’t promise anything to anyone. This is your list for things you don’t trust to your memory.

Some people operate their backlog like this already but many people assume that if an item is in the backlog it will be done one day. Others measure the backlog and forecast dates. But ideas may never be done so they complicate this thinking.

Personally I like to think that great ideas will either get remembered or rediscovered. That said, I also write down lots of ideas. However, I frequently throw my ideas lists away. So if at 11pm I think of something I’ll write it down, three weeks later if it is just moving from one list to another I’ll cross it off. I rewrite my “todo” and “priorities” lists regularly.

If it helps then just keep ideas some other place. One team I worked with created a “Sprint 99” – a sprint so far off in the future it was never going to done. They parked all the good ideas there so they had them for reference and if they needed them but there was no suggestion they would ever be done.

You will also want to think carefully about what you tell people when they say “I’ve got a great idea, can you add it to the backlog?” You want to be honest, but you don’t want to create a long conversation. So you might want to say something like “Great, thanks, I’ll add it to our ideas list, if it becomes a block please come back to me and we can talk some more.” In other words, put the ball back in their court to show the value of the idea.

I’ll admit I’m nervous about this suggestion. Part of me things it will inevitably become to be seen as a backlog. I think important things will get remembered, and things which aren’t important can just as easily get lost when put among 1000 other things. Still, I know some people will take comfort in this idea so give it a try and let me know.

This pieces was first published on Medium, Nuke the backlog.

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