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Our Expert Guide to Backlog Refinement for Better Agile Workflows

December 24, 2023 by Maria Garcia

Backlog refinement is arguably the most important element of an efficient Agile workflow.

The way you handle tickets at the start of the process trickles down to every subsequent stage—from planning to execution. Take the time to properly size, categorize, and prioritize your backlog items, and you can save yourself time and effort in the long run.

At Teaminal, we’ve helped teams at high-performing companies like Angi and Medium optimize their backflow refinement processes and boost efficiency. To help you do the same, we’ve put together this guide to the tips, tools, and strategies we use to make Agile workflows run smoothly.

Let’s get started.

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement (or backlog grooming) is an Agile ritual that helps teams define and prioritize their work items. 

The backlog refinement process is (usually) led by the PO and supported by input from the development team. During refinement sessions, the team evaluates the current backlog to adjust, estimate, and rank the backlog items. 

More specifically, the process involves:

  • Adding descriptions and estimates
  • Splitting or combining items
  • Prioritizing and re-prioritizing items
  • Deleting outdated items

Traditionally, this is done with synchronous meetings (either in-person or virtual). 

View Issue

Improve product search functionality

Our ecommerce website currently allows customers to search for products using keywords, but the results are often inaccurate and do not always display the most relevant products. This can be frustrating for customers and may lead to them leaving the site without making a purchase.

Not ready


Brad Simantel · 3:56pm

Looks like this was just written as a user story - we need clear acceptance criteria.

Reply

Our optimized backlog refinement process is conducted entirely asynchronously using Teaminal’s async tools. In our experience, this simple switch comes with a whole host of benefits—from increased efficiency to improved morale.

Why should you optimize your backlog refinement process?

Less wasted time

Scheduling face-to-face backlog refinement sessions is tough. 

Varying schedules, workloads, and timezones lead to valuable time being wasted. Plus, when you do find the time, the vast majority of team members are present as spectators… not an efficient use of their working hours.

Tools like Teaminal let you trade scheduling conflicts and lengthy, tedious meetings for efficient, flexible async collaboration. Things like sizing, commenting, and voting are all streamlined into one place, giving the team the same level of clarity while shaving away hours of wasted time.

Better morale

On a related note, optimizing your Agile workflow with async tools leads to increased morale. No one likes feeling like their time is being wasted—especially when there are pressing tasks and looming deadlines. 

Teaminal helps make sure that you leverage your team’s time in the most efficient and productive way possible. The idea is simple—more focused working hours (uninterrupted by meetings), without sacrificing the open line of communication that Agile relies on.

Better data

Unstructured and disorganized backlog refinement sessions tend to generate bad (or at least unreliable) data. This is a big problem—you need to be able to trust your data if you want to make decisions based on it. Plus, without good data, it’s hard to fine-tune your workflow and know what’s really working.

Teaminal changes all that by providing an organized platform for backlog refinement. It stores all comments, notes, and threads focused on each piece of work, so everyone can stay on the same page. 

Plus, you can generate reports that provide insights into improving team management.

Streamlined workflow

A well-groomed backlog makes sprint planning (and all the stages that follow) much easier. By investing time upfront, a thorough, systematic backlog refinement process can help your team plan better, and tackle problems as they arise. This isn’t just about saving time—it’s about making better product decisions and executing them confidently.

Enhanced collaboration

Finally, optimizing the way you do backlog refinement can lead to a more collaborative team environment. Just look at OK Alpha—they made the switch from single-team refinement meetings to multi-team refinement meetings and saw big increases in team collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and product focus.

How we do backlog refinement as experts

1. Stay focused on the goal

This is less an actionable step and more a reminder.

The goal of backlog refinement is to make sure that you’re able to pull items from your backlog without much additional effort beyond planning capacity and prioritizing work (if necessary). 

A lot of backlog refinement processes we see get bogged down in uncertainty and ambiguity. Teams cut corners during this stage by not properly defining the scope of work or by glossing over details that could be useful for a successful implementation—do this work upfront and thank yourself later.

2. Use async Agile meeting tools

Synchronous backlog meetings can be major productivity killers.

But don’t take our word for it—studies show that the average developer only puts in about 20 hours of focused work each week, despite full-time schedules. About 11 hours are lost to meetings, with roughly 6.3 hours lost while refocusing between meetings.

Yesterday I finished up work on the map, today I'm diving into the GraphQL stuff for the tables. No blockers!

  • Clementine Kelly closed TEST-1

Brad Simantel · 3:56pm

@clementine I think the GraphQL queries for the tables should be similar to the work I did for charts - let me know if you want help!

Reply
Clementine Kelly · 3:56pm

@brad thanks, I'll let you know if I run into any issues!

Reply

Teaminal lets you transition to async backlog meetings (but also standups, retros, and more) to maximize focus time. Team members contribute on their own time, vote on story points, ask clarifying questions, and view important details.

POs can set Slack and email reminders to nudge team members to contribute on time, and team members that aren’t directly involved with any of the backlog items can vote and add input in minutes—freeing them up for the rest of their day.

3. Keep your backlog manageable

Large backlogs can get overwhelming quick. A top priority during backlog refinement sessions should be making sure you get rid of stale items that are no longer relevant (for whatever reason) and combining items where applicable.

These two simple tasks can cut down on the length of your backlog drastically. 

Teaminal helps with this process by automatically pulling in your oldest backlog items and polling your team for their opinion. This way you can quickly get rid of any stale items and prioritize the ones that need to be acted on first.

4. Estimate story points

Estimating story points during the backlog refinement stage is a must. It lets you prioritize items based on their estimated complexity and relative value, so you can maximize the impact your team has while minimizing the amount of work they have to do.

View Issue

Show shopping cart in right sidebar

User Story

As a shopper, I want to see my shopping cart in the right sidebar of the page so that I can easily keep track of the items I have added to my cart and proceed to checkout without having to navigate to a separate page.

Acceptance Criteria

  • The cart is displayed in the right sidebar of the page with the product name, price, quantity, and a thumbnail of each item.
  • The cart dynamically updates as users add or remove items.
  • The cart uses our design system and matches the mocks.

3

5


Jenn Miller · 3:56pm

The API is already done, so this is just the front-end piece.

Reply

Planning poker is often seen as a sprint planning tool, but at Teaminal we use it for backlog refinement, too. You can use Teaminal to host async planning poker sessions where team members bid on the complexity of a story, and you can use it to quickly generate estimates that everyone is happy with. 

This helps keep your backlog organized and up-to-date.

5. Break down large items

In addition to combining small (but related) items, it’s also important to break down large backlog items into smaller tasks so that you don’t get overwhelmed and start to miss deadlines.

To do this, you’ll need those well-defined story point estimations you arrived at in the last step.

Use Teaminal to identify items that are too complex to fit into a single sprint and break them down into smaller tasks. This helps you keep your productivity high as well as increase visibility on progress, allowing everyone to see where the project is at every step of the way.

6. Define acceptance criteria

Clear acceptance criteria are essential in ensuring that there is a mutual understanding of what it means for a task to be considered done. These criteria serve as guidelines that help establish clear expectations for each item in the backlog.

For example, let’s say your team is working on a software development project to create a new e-commerce website. One of the backlog items is to implement a user registration feature. To set clear expectations and define the acceptance criteria for this task, you may outline specific requirements like:

  1. User registration form: The form should include fields for the user’s name, email address, password, and any additional required information.

  2. Validation: The form should include validation rules to make sure that the user enters valid information, like a correctly formatted email address and a secure password.

  3. Error handling: The system should provide informative error messages if the user enters incorrect or incomplete information, guiding them towards correcting any mistakes.

With Teaminal, coming up with acceptance criteria is a collaborative process. Team members can provide feedback and insights, allowing everyone to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done.

7. Keep records

In face-to-face backlog meetings, note-taking is often spotty. It’s not uncommon to end a 30-minute discussion with a one-sentence summary—not ideal for maintaining alignment in the hours and days that follow.

With Teaminal, the entire “meeting” is recorded in an easy-to-follow comment thread that’s always accessible. Team members can keep returning to add details, answer their questions, and even debate the merits of specific points. This keeps everyone informed and up to date on project progress, goals, and direction.

Plus, our Jira integration means that all comments are cross-posted to the relevant project issue, allowing the whole team to stay on the same page.

Conclusion

Backlog refinement is an important Agile ritual with a lot of room for optimization. If your team is currently relying on synchronous meetings, consider making the switch to async to increase focus time, improve alignment, and make sure everybody’s voices are heard. 

With Teaminal, Agile teams can access a suite of async meeting tools designed to facilitate meaningful conversations and keep the entire team in sync. From daily standups to sprint retrospectives, Teaminal helps teams stay organized, efficient, and in control.

Get started for free today.

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