Many Scrum teams focus on the established five scrum events that take place each sprint (stand up, sprint planning, sprint review, retrospective, and the sprint itself). However, one event not found in the Scrum Guide is the Backlog Refinement Meeting. The Scrum Guide references it, but does not call it out as a specific event: […]
Many Scrum teams focus on the established five scrum events that take place each sprint (stand up, sprint planning, sprint review, retrospective, and the sprint itself). However, one event not found in the Scrum Guide is the Backlog Refinement Meeting. The Scrum Guide references it, but does not call it out as a specific event:
“Product Backlog refinement is the act of breaking down and further defining Product Backlog items into smaller more precise items…This is an ongoing activity to add details, such as a description, order, and size. Attributes often vary with the domain of work.” – 2020 Scrum Guide
I like to think of refinement as the work that takes place “to the left,” or “upstream,” of the Scrum board. This work is necessary to meet the team’s Definition of Ready (DoR). When an item meets the DoR criteria, teams can be confident that it is ready to be pulled into a sprint. Unfortunately, teams often find it difficult to track refinement work. They typically hold refinement meetings once or twice a week. In them, teams will often express frustration about not knowing “where they are” in the refinement process. They spend a significant portion of time in refinement just remembering and regaining context. An upstream board can visually provide that context, saving time and helping team members understand what to do.
When teams lose context, they begin to experience anti-patterns of ill-prepared backlog items. This can manifest itself in problematic work items that:
In addition, because refinement work takes place upstream of the downstream sprint work, many teams find it difficult to “balance” team capacity between these two streams. The upstream work feels “hidden,” giving an incomplete picture of the entirety of the work the team is responsible for.
It is important to recognize that upstream refinement work and downstream sprint work are each part of the overall value stream for a product team. Once teams realize this fact, they are better able to manage upstream work and give it the necessary time and attention. However, teams often overlook this because the emphasis is placed on the downstream mechanics of the scrum events. By broadening their context to the entire value stream, teams get a better sense of what they are responsible for. This allows them to address the imbalance they often feel between refining stories (upstream) and completing them (downstream).
Once a team recognizes that upstream work is part of their overall value stream, they can make that work visible – that is, they can design an upstream refinement board to help achieve the DoR for their work items. Once those items meet that criteria, the team can confidently pull them into a sprint.
I’ve worked with many teams to visualize their upstream refinement work on a refinement board. At a minimum, here are the practices I recommend:
When I work with teams struggling with their refinement, I suggest the practices above as a minimum. A team can take this further (and should!) by employing practices such as establishing WIP limits, managing and measuring flow, and implementing feedback loops. But in my experience, the practices above alone have delivered vast improvements for teams and their refinement processes.
After building an upstream refinement board, teams often experience immediate improvement. Some that I have observed include:
I’ve worked with many teams that have taken the time to build out their upstream refinement board. It never starts out perfect, of course, but teams inevitably find it very helpful. It’s not hard to get started either. Meet with your team, discuss what it takes to meet your DoR, and begin to incorporate the board into your day-to-day practices. Good luck!
Want to learn more about Scrum? Check out our blog Is Your Sprint Length Arbitrary? for more ways to strengthen your team.