If I create a story and add it to the backlog, it will be lost forever and will never get done
A backlog is a prioritised list of work that needs to be done. The important stuff is at the top and the least important stuff at the bottom. If you find that work is “disappearing” in your backlog what could be the cause
- The backlog is not being maintained. The backlog is a living thing and as such needs feeding and watering. By that it needs near constant refinement. New work is discovered it gets added to the backlog. But what is happening to the existing stuff. All stories need to be reviewed not just the new ones. They need updating based on current knowledge. That might mean that the story is not required any longer and should be removed. Some people go so far as purging stories that have not been delivered based on their age. The thinking is that if a story gets to being 3 to 6 months old without being delivered then the chances are it will not be delivered in its current form at all.
- The newest work is the highest priority. Just because you have thought of the next killer feature it doesn’t automatically mean delivering that work is the highest priority. It should be assessed based on all the work in the backlog. If new work is always added to the top this starts to push older worked down, often meaning the team never get a chance to work on it.
- The work is not well defined. In order for someone to understand the work involved in a story it must be clear. If you are going to the trouble of adding work to the backlog that you think needs to be done you should also put in some effort to describe it. I’m not saying that you need to write “War and Peace” but you do need to represent the work to the Product Owner in ceremonies such as backlog refinement. In some circumstances, there are benefits to be found by having a triage process for new work. This provides a chance for the work to be reviewed by the necessary parties to ensure that it is understood, be prioritised and actually needed.
- You don’t have the right tools. A small team might get away with managing their backlog with sticky notes on a board. Large teams may need some tooling. Tooling can be an inhibitor as well as an enabler. So perhaps a tool has been implemented that is hard to use or that requires the team to be trained on. This might make it hard to find stories when you need them. Often it is possible to configure tools to provide reports of stories added in the last week or to enable integration with messaging tools such as slack so you have a constant stream of messages indicating new work entering the backlog.
Up to now this discussion has focused on the negative position that it is a bad thing that work is “being lost” in the backlog. However, when you think about it this may be a sign that you are doing the right thing. The work coming in may be aspirational or simply a wish list which is not what your customers really need. If you have an effective feedback loop you’ll be reacting to your customer’s needs rather than focusing on the things that they don’t care about.
Therefore, if you are the one coming up with the ideas that are not making it into the system you need to understand why. You can’t be precious about the work because it was “your idea”. This is looking at the product you’re building from a personal point of view and not considering how the product is used in reality. Perhaps you don’t understand the product as well as you think you do.
Finally, it is worth making a point around continuous technical improvement. My point of view is that for a product to be successful over a long period of time the technology it is built with needs to continuously evolve. Whether you call this technical debt or something else the point is that there will always be technical work that needs to be done that may not have direct value for the customer. The value is actually to your business as you’ll be able to continue to serve your customers in the future.
How you deal with this depends on the organisation. Often people implement a capacity tax that says that a given percentage of the team’s capacity goes towards technical improvement. This way the team are not asking for permission to improve things but there is a still need to document and prioritise the technical work that needs to be done. This is still a backlog. In other situations where the product owner is technically savvy and understands the relative value between delivering new features vs technical improvement, technical stories can be treated as any other work in the backlog.
Whichever way you look at this, it boils down to the fact that there is a pile of work that needs to be done. The work needs to be prioritised and each work item will have a different potential value to your customer and your business. And their needs to be way to make this work visible and transparent in an efficient manner.