How to Reduce the Product Backlog Size

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While it’s normal that a product backlog changes, some backlogs grow too big and become overly long and detailed, which makes them difficult to update, prioritise, and refine. The following tips help you simplify such a backlog so you can manage with it more easily.

Split the Product Backlog

Faced with an overly long and detailed product backlog, investigate if it does describe one cohesive product. Over time, products can serve an increasingly heterogeneous market and provide a large number of different features, some of which may not be used by all users.

If that’s the case for your product, then reduce the product backlog size by unbundling one or more features and releasing them as products in their own right, like Facebook did with Messenger in 2014. The company unbundled the messaging functionality originally included in its Facebook mobile app and made it available as a stand-alone product.

To use this technique to make your product backlog smaller, create a separate backlog for the new product and move the unbundled features from the old to the new product backlog.

Reduce the Product Backlog Scope

Your second option is to limit the scope of your backlog. To do so, choose a clear, specific, and measurable goal for the next three to six months, for example, acquire x number of new users or increase engagement by y%. Then use the goal to focus your product backlog: Remove all backlog items that do not help meet the goal. While this approach may sound radical, it ensures that your product backlog is concise and focused. It avoids looking too far into the future, having speculative items on the backlog, and turning the product backlog into a wish list.

If you complement your product backlog with a product roadmap, you can do two things: First, you can use the upcoming roadmap goal to scope your backlog. Secondly, you can capture important backlog items that do not serve the goal as coarse-grained features on the roadmap (together with their appropriate goals). This way, they are not forgotten or lost. But don’t make the mistake of overloading your product roadmap with features and don’t add any epics or user stories to your product roadmap. Otherwise, the roadmap will become overly detailed and volatile.

Hide the Details

Your third option is to structure the product backlog in order to make it more manageable thereby hiding detailed items. A simple way to do this is to group epics into themes, which represent coarse-grained features or user journey steps like registration or search and navigation.

If you also relate user stories to the epic they belong to, you will create the following structure: theme → epic → user story. While such a product backlog contains the same number of items, you can now access its contents more easily by using themes and epics to navigate to the detailed user stories.

Aggregate the Details

Another option to reduce the product backlog size is to combine detailed items. This is achieved by replacing lower-priority, fine-grained items with a coarse-grained one, for example, substituting a number of user stories with a newly created epic. In addition to reducing the product backlog size, aggregating the details creates an appropriately detailed product backlog. Such as backlog is easier to update and change, which is tends to be particularly helpful for young products and those experiencing a major change like a life cycle extension.

Eliminate Zombie Items

Most of us have probably done it: Adding items to the product backlog to please an important stakeholder even though we knew that we would not be able to implement them any time soon. Over time, they’ve turned into zombie items at the bottom of the product backlog, which aren’t dead or alive.

If you’ve followed my earlier advice, you will have already removed those items. But if that’s not the case, then either implement or delete them now. Your product backlog should only contain items that help create value for the users or business — not to appease individuals.

In the future, make sure to decline items that are not helpful to execute the product strategy and meet specific product goals. Attentively listen to requests and empathise with the individual. But be not afraid to say no once you’ve understood the person’s needs and interests.

Learn More

You can learn more about effectively working with the product backlog by attending my product owner workshop and reading my book Agile Product Management with Scrum.

Product management expert. Author of “How to Lead in Product Management”, “Strategize” and “Agile Product Management with Scrum”.

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