Mastering the Art of Product Backlog Refinement

December 13, 2023


ICAgile Team

A well-tended garden, with its lush greenery and soothing designs, makes people feel content,  relaxed, and even inspired.

In contrast, a neglected garden—overrun with weeds and wilting plants—can feel chaotic, and even foreboding. You immediately sense that something is amiss.

Think of product backlog refinement as tending to a thriving garden. The backlog acts as the garden bed, a place where ideas wait to blossom into features, improvements, and fixes. Just like a gardener weeds and prunes for healthy growth, refinement eliminates unnecessary tasks and prioritizes the most valuable work.

Whether you’re new to product backlog refinement, or your refinement practices need a little…ahem…refinement, this article will give you a comprehensive overview of the product backlog refinement process.

What Is a Product Backlog?

A product backlog is a prioritized list of features, user stories, improvements, bug fixes, and other initiatives that a team works on. The product backlog is typically maintained by a product owner or product manager. While a product backlog was originally an artifact used by a Scrum team, it’s now more widely used by a variety of teams.

What Is Product Backlog Refinement?

Product backlog refinement is the process of reviewing and updating items in the backlog on a regular basis. This includes breaking down larger items into smaller slices, adding new items, removing unnecessary ones, and ensuring the existing items have clear acceptance criteria. 

The goal is to ensure the product backlog always contains the most relevant, valuable, and well-defined items for the development team to work on at the top. When done effectively, product backlog refinement helps the team prepare for upcoming sprints. In the long-term, consistent product backlog refinement can also improve the overall product quality.

Product Backlog vs. Sprint Backlog

It’s easy to confuse the product backlog and the sprint backlog, especially because they are related.

The product backlog contains all the work required to develop the product. It includes a comprehensive list of features, bug fixes, user stories, technical work, and other tasks. The purpose of the product backlog is to capture the overall scope of work, allowing stakeholders to understand the direction of the product. 

In contrast, the sprint backlog is used by the development team to plan, track, and commit to the work for the current sprint. Because a sprint covers a time-boxed period, typically between one week and one month, the sprint backlog is much smaller than the product backlog. 

How are these two backlogs related? Items in the sprint backlog are pulled from the product backlog. Both backlogs are crucial for successful agile development, as they provide transparency, flexibility, and alignment between the product vision and the team's work.

Backlog Grooming vs. Backlog Refinement

Backlog grooming and backlog refinement are often used interchangeably, and they mean the same thing.

Most development teams and Scrum masters prefer to use the term “backlog refinement” over “backlog grooming.” The word refinement expresses the idea of continuous improvement better than the word grooming does.

Who Is Responsible for the Product Backlog?

Managing a product backlog is a team effort. Here are how different team members contribute:

  • The product owner is accountable for the creation, maintenance, and prioritization of the product backlog. 
  • The Scrum master facilitates the backlog refinement process, removing any obstacles and helping the team understand and execute the backlog items effectively. 
  • The development team participates in the refinement process, providing input, estimates, and clarifications on the backlog items.

Running a Product Backlog Refinement Meeting

Running a successful product backlog refinement meeting requires proper planning, effective communication, and a clear understanding of the team's goals and priorities.

Who Attends and Facilitates a Backlog Refinement Meeting?

In a backlog refinement meeting, the product owner, Scrum master, and development team review and prioritize the items in the backlog. 

  • The Scrum master facilitates the meeting, ensuring that it stays focused and on track.
  • The product owner prioritizes the backlog items and answers questions from the team.
  • The team discusses and estimates the backlog items, breaking down larger items into smaller tasks, and updating the status of previously refined items.
  • Relevant stakeholders from marketing, sales, or customer support might be invited to the refinement meeting if their expertise is needed.

Ultimately, the backlog refinement meeting helps the team get a clear understanding of the work ahead.

How Long Should Backlog Refinement Take?

The appropriate length for backlog refinement meetings depends on the project complexity and the size of the backlog. For the first few meetings, a good starting point is to allocate two hours. As the project progresses and the team becomes more familiar with the backlog items, one-hour refinement meetings are probably enough.

While backlog refinement is important, it should not exceed 10% of the capacity of the development team. Spending too much time on refinement will reduce productivity.

Before the Refinement Meeting

Discussing dozens of new ideas in a product backlog refinement meeting can waste valuable time. If you’re going to bring an idea for a new task or feature to the meeting, you should evaluate the idea in advance. Does this idea align with the product vision? What potential business value does it have? What risks or challenges could it pose?

Adding unnecessary work to the backlog can distract the team and detract from the overall product vision and the highest priority items. Therefore, the product owner, who is ultimately accountable for the backlog, will evaluate the value and feasibility of new ideas before allowing them to be added.

Benefits of Product Backlog Refinement

Product backlog refinement can feel like one more thing to do in your already busy day. But there’s a reason why backlog refinement is so popular with development teams. Here are some of the benefits:

Shared Understanding Across the Team

The refinement meeting is a time for team members to align on the sprint goal. By discussing and prioritizing work items, team members get clarity on the scope and requirements of each user story.

Additionally, the meeting helps team members with differing views on priorities and deadlines get on the same page. By openly discussing and debating the importance of each work item, team members can come to a shared understanding of what needs to be prioritized. This ensures that the team is working towards a common goal and that everyone is clear on what needs to be accomplished in the upcoming sprint.

Better Sprint Planning

Investing time in backlog refinement makes sprint planning more efficient and effective. In a backlog refinement meeting, the team looks at work items together so that everyone understands what needs to be done and why. This ensures that during sprint planning, the team is prepared to pull in the highest-priority work for the upcoming sprint.

Manageable Workloads

During backlog refinement, the team prioritizes tasks and breaks down large tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. Organizing and planning the work in this way makes it easier for people to stay on track. Team members have clarity on what they need to work on, how the tasks should be prioritized, and when tasks are due in the current sprint. 

Ultimately, product backlog refinement leads to a more efficient use of time and resources. 

To learn more about effective strategies for backlog refinement, check out ICAgile’s Product Ownership certification. Developed by leaders in the field and focused on industry best practices, ICAgile certifications give you knowledge and skills to help advance your career.

Elevate Your Learning

Join our community of agile learners and get the latest news and resources delivered straight to your inbox.

* indicates required
Product Ownership, Agile Product Ownership, Product Strategy, Product Management

About the author

ICAgile Team