Like a garden growing wild when left unattended for too long, the product backlog becomes unwieldy when it’s neglected. The backlog needs regular attention and care; it needs to be carefully managed or groomed. 

Product Backlog refinement is not an official, time-boxed Scrum event. The ambition of Scrum is to remain simple, yet sufficient. The ambition of Scrum is to help people and teams discover additional practices that may or may not be appropriate in their specific context. Product Backlog refinement is an activity that many teams undertake to smoothen their Sprints and limit turbulence in the first days of a Sprint. A typical feature of Product Backlog refinement activities is that estimates of effort or cost get set, or are revised. Other teams may be much further down their Agile path, need less precision at Sprint Planning or have a relationship with the Product Owner that’s less about accuracy. They cope without it, or do it less formally, do it without explicitly naming or consciously planning this activity. They would perceive it as optional or even as an overhead if it was a mandatory event instructed by the Scrum framework. Product Backlog refinement is a great activity within a Sprint, a good tactic to collaboratively manage Product Backlog. Some can do without, however.

Refinement of the product backlog comprises the steps listed below. Note that these are not necessarily carried out in the order stated:

• New items are discovered and described, and existing ones are changed or removed as appropriate.

• The product backlog is prioritized. The most important items are now found at the top.

• The high-priority items are prepared for the upcoming sprint planning meeting; they are decomposed and refined.

• The team sizes product backlog items. Adding new items to the product backlog, changing existing ones, and correcting estimates make sizing necessary.

Although the product owner is responsible for making sure that the product backlog is in good shape, refinement is a collaborative process. Items are discovered and described, prioritized, decomposed, and refined by the entire Scrum team—Scrum allocates up to 10% of the team’s availability for refinement activities (Schwaber 2007); stakeholders are involved as appropriate. Requirements are no longer handed off to the team; the team members co-author them. The product owner, ScrumMaster, and team engage in face-to-face conversations rather than communicating via documents.

Refinement the product backlog collaboratively is fun and effective. It creates a dialogue within the Scrum team and between the team and the stakeholders. It removes the divide between “the business” and “the techies” and eliminates wasteful handoffs. It increases the clarity of the requirements, leverages the Scrum team’s collective knowledge and creativity, and creates buy-in and joint ownership.

Some teams like to do a bit of refinement after their Daily Scrum. Others prefer weekly refinement sessions or a longer refinement workshop toward the end of the sprint. Refinement activities also take place in the sprint review meeting when the Scrum team and the stakeholders discuss the way forward; new backlog items are identified and old ones are removed. Make sure you establish a refinement process so that the activities are carried out reliably, for instance, by starting with weekly refinement workshops. A well-groomed backlog is a prerequisite for a successful sprint planning meeting.

There is a great tool to support product backlog refinement: paper cards. They are cheap and easy to use. They facilitate collaboration; everyone can grab a card and write down an idea. They can also be grouped on the table or wall to check for consistency and completeness. Cards and electronic product backlog tools, such as spreadsheets, complement each other: Print out existing requirements on paper cards prior to a refinement workshop and transfer the information on the cards back into the electronic tool afterwards.

Source: 

  • Verheyen, Gunther. Scrum - A Pocket Guide ,  
  • Pichler, Roman. Agile Product Management with Scrum