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What is story grooming? The ultimate guide to backlog grooming

Story grooming, backlog grooming, feature prioritization, resource management — sometimes it feels like product management is just a never-ending prioritization session.

Making sure your project achieves its objectives requires you to constantly assess your to-do lists. As the budget shrinks and resources start dwindling, you need to ensure you only include features that truly add value. So while regular prioritization sessions seem tedious, it’s an essential practice.

Today, we’ll dive deep into some of the most essential prioritization activities any product manager can perform: story grooming and backlog grooming.

Table of contents

What is story grooming? The ultimate guide to backlog grooming

What is story grooming?

Story grooming (also referred to as backlog grooming) is the practice of prioritizing user stories in the product backlog to ensure they are ready for sprint planning. It’s an essential practice that ensures the backlog doesn’t become bloated with ideas destined to die.

Story grooming sessions help teams maintain alignment with the project and business goals. It also ensures that everyone on the team is fully up to date on any developments affecting the project development cycle.

Story grooming sessions involve looking at each item in the product backlog, opening a discussion, and finding ways to improve. This can involve:

  • Writing new user stories
  • Refining and reprioritizing previously written user stories
  • Breaking large stories into smaller stories
  • Removing items from the backlog
  • Redefining acceptance and testing criteria
  • Reviewing time and personnel estimates
  • Adding new product features

By using story grooming to keep your backlog healthy and relevant, your teams will be able to create products that exceed customer expectations.

Backlog grooming best practices

Backlog grooming allows teams to be more efficient and better organized. Let’s look at some tricks to ensure your story grooming session offers maximum value.

Well-timed sessions

Backlog grooming sessions usually happen during a sprint, around three or four days after starting if you’re working with a two-week sprint. The meeting follows a demonstration of the deliverables created in the previous sprint so that the project status is fresh in everyone’s mind.

Everyone involved should leave the session feeling familiar with what’s still in the backlog and the goals for the upcoming sprint. The meeting results will be refreshed in everyone’s mind come sprint planning, so the team can start the next sprint with total confidence.

Confidence is key

The phrase “plan for success” is a little silly because no one running a successful business has ever planned to fail. But the confidence of the phrase is something we should all embrace.

We run grooming sessions to ensure we can go into the next sprint with full confidence. Start each backlog grooming session with a clear statement of expectations for the meeting and make sure to have a set agenda. You should also add context to every decision by reminding the team why you’re building the product.

Preparation for story grooming

Preparation is crucial. Without preparing for your backlog grooming session, you risk pruning an item that could be integral to a great customer experience. This is what you need to know:

Know the objectives of the project

Every decision during a grooming session can be made independently, but it shouldn’t be. Each decision you make will impact the final product, and teams need to keep this in mind at all times.

Get the right people involved

As with any meeting, there will be people essential to backlog grooming sessions and some who don’t need to be involved. We’ll get into this in more detail shortly.

Align with stakeholders

Conflict between development teams and stakeholders is common. It’s also incredibly disruptive and should be avoided as much as possible. Maintaining alignment with stakeholders ensures you don’t accidentally prune an item from the backlog that your stakeholders favor.

Review the work you’ve done

Product teams should constantly review their previous work, especially Agile teams. Take note of key metrics and look for ways to improve next time around.

Who should attend backlog grooming sessions?

It’s always worth inviting other departments to your backlog grooming sessions. After all, you’re rarely going to make a product specifically for other developers.

Bringing in participants from other teams and departments will bring fresh perspectives to the meeting. They act as a new set of eyes on the project and can make points that the development team may have missed.

However, it’s equally important to keep your session simple. Bringing in too many people can cause the session to run off track.

To avoid overcrowding, try to limit backlog grooming sessions to team members with the highest involvement in the building process. When it comes to external departments, make sure to appoint just one pre-appointed team member to act as that department’s voice.

Key participants of a backlog grooming session include:

  • The meeting leader — this is usually the product manager or product owner.
  • Product managers (if not leading the meeting) and key representatives from the product team
  • Lead engineers
  • Appointed spokesperson for external departments such as marketing, QA, and customer-facing teams.

Backlog grooming checklist

It can take a lot of work to figure out when to end a backlog grooming session. You can easily identify when to put a pin in the meeting by building a story grooming checklist.

  • Does the backlog contain user stories or other items that no longer make sense?
  • Has a user need been identified that isn’t already part of the backlog?
  • Does your backlog prioritization represent the needs of the customer?
  • Did the importance of delivering any item change since the last time you looked at the backlog?
  • Are any estimates outdated?
  • Is any backlog item too broad to know what developers should implement in the next sprint?

Once you have ticked every item on the checklist, you can call your backlog grooming session complete!

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