What to Do When Your Product Backlog Becomes Overwhelming | Lucidchart Blog
Skip to main content

If you’ve ever owned or rented a home, you know that maintaining your house can be a full-time job. After you replace the flooring and update the kitchen, the water heater needs to be fixed, and the sprinkler system needs to be maintained.

And that’s on top of the weekly tasks, such as mowing the lawn, and dealing with inevitable emergencies and broken appliances. No matter how many items you seem to get through on your to-do list, there’s always more to do, and the list is never done.

A product backlog can feel quite a bit like the to-do list involved with maintaining an old home, and it’s easy for product owners or project managers to feel like they’re stuck with a never ending backlog that demands more and more manpower and is increasingly disorganized.

Learn how to prioritize the tasks in your product backlog to streamline the process for the future and bring peace of mind to everyone involved.

Common mistakes with product backlog management

A product backlog is a necessity, but occasionally, product backlog management is so poor that teams can start to ignore the backlog. That’s a massive issue that halts the systematic progression and natural evolution of a product. 

Take a look at the common mistakes that lead to product backlog chaos.

Unclear prioritization

Priorities need to be defined by stakeholders ahead of time so that items can be objectively grouped into levels of urgency. It’s important these definitions are written down so that there’s no confusion: the highest-impact and most urgent items on the backlog must be addressed first.

When defining prioritization, address:

  • Priority for customers
  • Ease of implementation
  • Relationships between tasks
  • Resource constraints
  • Business value

The weight of each of these factors contributes to the overall importance of an item and determines its placement of priority in the backlog.

Irrelevant items

A backlog isn’t the place to throw in just any idea. That leads to a cluttered, disorganized backlog. Instead, every item in the backlog should be a purposeful step toward the ultimate goal of the product. 

This goal is referred to as the product vision, and if your team doesn’t have one, there’s no way to have an organized backlog. Develop a clear product vision and make sure that every item in the product backlog points toward achieving that product vision.

Not taking dependencies into account

It’s a minor (and sometimes major) disaster when an urgent, highly impactful item rises to the top of the backlog and the dependencies that need to be implemented first are lower on the backlog. This situation leads to greater disorganization and, ultimately, slower product improvement.

Tips to help you prioritize an overwhelming product backlog

So your product backlog is starting to feel like the task list for restoring a decaying Victorian mansion. Don’t lose hope: With a few best practices, it’s easy to groom the backlog down to a manageable length.

1. Have a clear product vision

We mentioned this briefly above, but it’s worth mentioning it again. The product vision is the North Star to which all tasks should point. This product vision needs to be clearly defined, updated as needed, accessible by everyone at any time, and referred to often. Product managers often provide a product requirements document at the beginning to illustrate the product vision and keep everyone involved working towards the same goal, and it’s an easy barometer to use when determining what goes in a backlog and what can be tossed away.

2. Set guidelines for your backlog

Your business needs to decide individual guidelines that dictate what items will and will not be included in the backlog, as well as what weight to give various factors to determine the order of prioritization. Without these standards in place, prioritization becomes arbitrary. 

3. Organize items with prioritization scores

To eliminate bias when addressing prioritization and to determine the most efficient and most strategic approach, it’s smart to use a numerical system that can assist with determining priority. 

There are various scoring models that give numerical scores based on factors, such as customer value, implementation costs, and increased revenue; it may take experimenting to determine the best scoring model for your business. The end result, however, should be that your backlog is divided into top priority, medium priority, and longer-term priority. 

This strategic approach to organization is a great way to defend and explain the order of tasks in the backlog to stakeholders, teams, and anyone else involved in the product’s evolution.

product backlog example
Product backlog example (Click on image to modify online)

4. Use a product management tool

A good product management tool can convert the stress and uncertainty of backlog tasks into smaller, actionable tasks. It can help you visually determine dependencies you may not have noticed and can also improve and maintain transparency. A product management tool converts frustration into progress, and that’s more than worth the price of a software subscription.

5. Groom your list often

There are many reasons why an item in the backlog may no longer be necessary: customer needs change, resources change, and priorities shift. It’s important to note that the prioritization score initially assigned to an item won’t necessarily remain the same, and as soon as that score changes, it may move up or down the list in priority. 

Without grooming the list, however, it’s impossible to keep on top of the most important items. When items become outdated, they should simply be removed from the list. And when items are so low in priority that they won’t be addressed within the next six months, those should also be removed.

6. Create an idea list

Timing is everything. An idea that once seemed irrelevant—such as implementing social distanced delivery options—may suddenly take on new importance overnight. Instead of just throwing away items, move them to an idea list and revisit that idea list occasionally when innovation seems to be lagging. 

7. Assign time and development resources

A product management tool can help greatly with this, as it’s easy to see which team member is working on what. But not taking the time to examine available resources when transferring items from the backlog into the current scrum can quickly lead to disaster. Suddenly, one task that seemed relatively simple could end up using all your developers’ time.

You may want to develop a point system that converts manpower hours into points and then determine how many points you have total based on your current resources. If you have two developers coding full-time, an hour of coding time might be represented by one point. If you have 80 points total per sprint, it would be irresponsible to assign items from the backlog worth 400 points each. 

Using a point system to establish your team’s velocity is a clearer way to measure the amount of work that can be completed in a sprint and ensure more efficient resource management.

A product backlog is an inevitability, but instead of viewing it as a disorganized mess, view it as a list of opportunities. This mindset can help get people excited about where your product is going and can help teams better understand what they’re working towards. Plus, a backlog is the best way to keep the highest priority, biggest impact items front and center.

Once you have your product backlog organized, run an effective sprint planning meeting to get moving on projects.

Learn how