Lutz Mueller 

Does your Product Backlog seem to be unmanageable? It is hard to find items, your backlog contains duplicated items, and you are having difficulty prioritizing your backlog. Are you afraid of removing items from your Product Backlog because you fear losing information and deleting the wrong backlog items? Are you concerned about stakeholders arguing with you why you removed items from the backlog? You understand you need to change the way you manage your backlog, but you do not know how to clean up your backlog without upsetting stakeholders, customers, and developers. I have got you covered. Follow this step-by-step guide for cleaning your backlog with confidence.

Before we go ahead, you need to understand when you need to clean up your backlog:

When You Need to Clean Up Your Product Backlog

I want to prevent you from doing work you don’t need to do. Please check if you encounter some of the following scenarios during the work with your Product Backlog:

You need to clean up your backlog if

  • Finding backlog items is hard.
  • Your backlog contains duplicate or confusing features and stories.
  • Ordering the backlog is impossible.
  • You have endless refinement sessions.
  • You have no reason to reject requests from stakeholders and customers.

If you want to go into more detail, look at the article 5 Reasons You Need to Limit the Size of Your Product Backlog.

If you are already convinced to clean up your backlog, but you still resist to remove items, I have got your covered. Let’s have a look at what prevents you from cleaning up your backlog:

The Unfounded Fear That Is Preventing You From Cleaning Up Your Product Backlog

I am pretty sure you know how to remove items from your backlog technically. Whether you are using Jira, Rally, or any other tool for your backlog, it is relatively easy to delete items. 

Yet, you resist deleting items. Once you delete an item, it is gone. All the information in this item is gone, too. You ask yourself, “What if I deleted the wrong items?” Inside yourself, you feel fear. You are afraid of losing information that you might need in the future.

Dominant and powerful stakeholders can “force you” by their behavior to add items to your Product Backlog. What will happen if they noticed you removed some of those items? Do you need to explain to them in long and exhausting meetings why you removed some features they were interested in? Are you afraid of having those meetings? It’s another kind of fear.

What happens if you deleted an item with low priority, and a few weeks later, this item comes up again with urgency? You need to also work on the backlog item and start with a blank ticket in your backlog tool. Are you afraid of redoing work? You get the point. It’s fear, too.

What exactly is fear? It’s a feeling, just that.

Fear is there to keep you safe if you are in danger.

Are you in danger when you remove items from your backlog to sharpen to the next steps of product development? 

Are you in danger when/if you remove items you know your team will never develop?

Are you in danger if you clean up your Product Backlog to reduce overload?

The final question? Are you in danger if you do your Product Owner job?

Obviously not. 

So, what causes fear?

Unfamiliar experience! If you have something never done before, you feel insecurity and fear.

To overcome this fear, you need to gain a reference experience. You need to feel no danger in cleaning up your backlog; it’s a positive thing. You don’t feel this yet, but after you applied the following step-by-step guide, you will.

How to Clean Up Your Product Backlog

The following step-by-step guide is a safe and confident way to get rid of items in your backlog you already know you won’t implement:

  1. Create a Backup
  2. Set a Time Frame
  3. Remove Items Not Related to Product Vision
  4. Remove Items Not Matching The Time Frame
  5. Optional: Group Related Items for Future Sprints

Here we go:

1. Create a Backup

Let’s take the safe route and create a backup of your current backlog. Save all items in a CSV file or whatever your backlog tool offers you.

This backup helps you to feel safe. In case you delete an item accidentally, you can get your data back. No information is lost. 

If stakeholders complain about why you removed items from the backlog, you can give them a safe feeling, too. You can assure them that no information is lost, but you removed some backlog items to focus more on the product’s vision and goals.

2. Determine a Time Frame

A backlog gets longer and longer as you add every idea, feature, or story to the backlog. There may be items in your backlog that are more than six months old.

Determine a timeframe for your Product Backlog to shift the meaning of your backlog from a wish list to an artifact representing the near future of your product. This article contains some examples that you can use to set a time frame that suits your product and your team’s situation.

As a rule of thumb, use a time frame of 3-6 months. This time frame will create a maximum number of items your product backlog should not exceed. We will use this number during the next steps.

3. Remove Items Not Related to Product Vision

Identify items that do not relate to your product’s vision. Remove those items as they do not help you to get closer to the product vision. 

4. Remove Items Not Matching The Time Frame

Identify items you know you won’t develop during the time frame you set from the second step. Those items might match the product vision, but you already know you will not get those items done during the time frame you selected. 

Let’s have an example:

Time frame: OKR cycle three months

Number of sprints in this time frame: 6 sprints (2-week sprints: 3 months = 12 weeks = 6 sprints)

The average number of completed items per sprint: 8

Maximum number of items in Product Backlog = 6 * 8 = 48

You could round the number to 50. It is easier to remember. Remove all items with low priority to match the maximum number.

5. Optional: Group Related Items for Future Sprints

Keep items for the next 1-2 sprints detailed and group remaining items. If you have few details (only title, no description), group them into a theme or epic. At the moment, there is no need to keep them separated. Keeping those items separated makes it more difficult to order your backlog.

Next Steps

If you did the clean up the first time, those steps took a lot of time. You felt the pain right now. Try to make the clean up a habit. You don’t want to do all the work again.

Set yourself a reminder to do the clean up again next month. The next time you clean up your backlog, you won’t need that much time.

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