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Product Backlog Refinement is an Investment

Image showing the elements of a Product Backlog item which are detail, order and size


Many Developers are not accustomed to spending time on Refinement.  Many even consider Refinement a “waste” of their time!  Refinement is the act of adding detail, order and size to items in the Product Backlog. A well-refined Product Backlog is an investment that accelerates value delivery in the long term.  Here’s why.


No Fluff, just Value

A well-refined Product Backlog saves time in development because Developers can work with the Product Owner to ensure that Product Backlog items only include the work necessary to deliver the sought-after value to the customer and no more.  Gold plating or adding functionality that is not needed is a form of waste.  


Just look at Twitter!  Sometimes, the best functionality is the simplest functionality.  Spending time in Refinement with the Developers and the Product Owner can foster discussion about why each Product Backlog item is needed, leading to the most streamlined solution that meets the customer's needs.


Increase Value

Refinement is not just about reducing waste, though, it’s about adding value.  Developers on a Scrum team can be an excellent source of inspiration for ideas on how to add value to the Product.  When the Product Owner discusses customer needs with Developers, it can lead to some valuable discussions about what would add the most value to the Product.  These ideas can be added to the Product Backlog as part of refinement activities.


Accelerate value delivery 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a conversation is worth a million!  Just reading what is documented in a Product Backlog item can lead to misunderstandings, even if the Product Owner uses complementary practices such as user stories or Gherkin to add additional detail and context to the documentation associated with each Product Backlog item. Misunderstandings over what has been requested can create rework, which slows value delivery.  When Developers spend time discussing items in the Product Backlog with the Product Owner, they better understand what is needed, which can lead to a better solution in the long run.


Incremental Delivery 

To deliver value incrementally, higher-ordered Product Backlog Items must be sized so that they can be completed within one Sprint. Only developers can size product backlog items because they understand the effort, complexity, and risk involved in delivering each item. Conducting refinement activities with Developers and the Product Owner ensures that the Developers understand what each Product Backlog item is expected to deliver so that they can size it appropriately or break it down into multiple smaller Product Backlog items if necessary.


Improves Forecast Accuracy

If Product Backlog items are not sized to be completed within a single Sprint, this can create what is commonly called carryover, or Product Backlog items that may be carried over into future Sprints.  When a Scrum team has a high amount of carryover, it can make forecasting difficult because its throughput or velocity is more unstable, which makes forecasting future delivery chancy at best.


How to do Refinement

Scrum teams should conduct Refinement activities regularly.  How this is done is up to each team.  Some Scrum teams may have all members participate in regular meetings to refine the Product Backlog.  Other Scrum teams may identify a smaller group of individuals responsible for Refinement.  Whatever process a team creates, the outcome of Refinement should be Product Backlog Items with an order, description, and size applied to the highest-ordered Product Backlog Items. 


How much is too much?

How many ready Product Backlog items should the Product Owner have in the Product Backlog?  There’s no right answer to this one. It depends on many factors, including how often priorities change, stakeholders' trust in the Product Owner, business risk, technology risk, and more.  For example, if priorities change frequently, then having a Product Backlog with multiple Sprints of ready work could create waste because if direction changes, then those Product Backlog items that the Scrum team has spent time on in Refinement may never be selected for development in a Sprint. 


Conversely, a well-refined product backlog builds trust with stakeholders, which can help the product owner engage with them regarding value delivery and what would add the most value to the product in the future.


There’s no right or wrong answer to how much time is spent on Refinement.  Time spent in Refinement is an investment, and only the Product Owner can decide how much of an investment they want to make in this area.


Conclusion

Refinement is not a waste of time.  A well-refined Product Backlog accelerates value delivery and ensures that the Scrum team works on the highest value work while reducing waste.  How much time each Scrum team spends in Refinemetn depends on factors such as business and technology risk and stakeholder needs.  



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Hear from thought leaders on how to Deliver Products with value using Scrum. This year's Scrum Day conference is scheduled for October 23, 2024, in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin.

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