Clean Your Product Backlog With Tips From These Product Leaders

by Madeline Hester
August 14, 2020

There are two types of people: those who maintain a zero-inbox email policy and those that let their inbox get out of control. And while the two may bicker on which system is best, there isn’t much of a difference when it comes to productivity. 

When it comes to product backlogs, the zero-inboxers take the win. Product backlogs are commonly a dumping ground for every idea, story, feature request, bug fix and task related to product, and not surprisingly, they can become pretty unwieldy and difficult to manage if not handled properly.

But slimming down a product backlog is not as simple as addressing each item as it appears: Different items take varying amounts of time to address and have different levels of urgency. Built In Chicago talked with two companies on how they align their product backlog items with overall business vision and how that helps prioritize levels of importance. 

 

Shaila Kuchibhotla
VP Product Management

Kuchibhotla and her team at Beyond Finance follow the RICE method for prioritizing product backlogs. At the fintech company, each item in the backlog is attached to what business objective it will later solve, which then determines importance. 

 

What parameters do you have in place to ensure your product backlog is manageable and that the items on there truly belong there?

As an organization, we’ve defined a set of key business objectives to assess what’s important. Every feature request or idea that the product team gets is evaluated through the lens of customer experience and how it ties to those business objectives. 

We’ve also streamlined our intake process to allow the product team more ownership over what work gets done and when. Requests from stakeholders are organized in a single place and reviewed by the product team on a regular basis to decide what gets added to the backlog.

Throughout the process, it’s important for the product team to consider what problems we’re trying to solve or what outcomes we’re trying to achieve with each change we make, and how that ties back to our business objectives.

 

How do you prioritize the items that do make it to your product backlog? 

We are working towards leveraging the RICE framework for product prioritization.

For each item in the backlog, we outline the primary business objective we think it will impact and assess the following factors to determine priority.

 

The RICE Framework

  • Reach: How many users will the feature affect in a given timeframe?
  • Impact: How much of an impact will the feature have on users or business objectives (e.g. low, medium, high)?
  • Confidence: How much confidence is there in the estimations of reach and impact? (i.e. Is there data to support these numbers or is it more intuition?)
  • Effort: What level of product, design and development effort is needed for this feature (e.g. low, medium, high)?

 

What other stakeholders do you include in the prioritization process, and how do they help inform decisions around what to prioritize and when?

We work with marketing, sales, operations and legal to better understand their requests, the problems they’re trying to solve and the constraints they have. We also have a monthly roadmap review with these stakeholders to provide visibility to our product strategy and priority.  

These conversations give our stakeholders the opportunity to review how we’ve prioritized things and discuss whether we’ve accurately represented things like reach or impact. They may present additional data to show that something is more impactful than we initially thought it would be, making the case that it should be a higher priority. 

We also partner very closely with the technology team to evaluate feasibility for different features or ideas and discuss possible solutions to support the product initiative. This helps us get an accurate estimate of the effort required as we prioritize. Ultimately, the decision on priority is made by the product team — in alignment with business objectives — but input and feedback from other teams are important and help us build an effective product roadmap.

 

Sam Pourkermani
Director of Digital Transformation & Product Development

To prioritize product backlogs, teams need to share an understanding of the business vision and company goals. At “unconsulting” firm Inspirant Group, Pourkermani said that business vision is defined by asking about customer and business needs, broad features and future business potential.  

 

What parameters do you have in place to ensure your product backlog is manageable and that the items on there truly belong there?

To promote the goal of addressing a customer’s needs, while also aiming to deliver higher-quality products or new features faster than their competition, a product backlog should be comprised of three types of work.

First, product or “business” features and bug fixes that address specific customer needs. Second, enablement features, such as work needed to “enable” or support future business functionality or improve development and quality. And third, technical debt and maintenance, such as refactoring code and other activities that optimize agility and speed to market. 

Teams can use their shared understanding of the broader vision and goal to continually optimize delivery speed to make decisions about what is appropriate for the backlog. In addition to having a clear and common understanding of the vision, a team also needs a mechanism and process to manage the filtering process. Tactically, a team can use a Kanban board to implement a set of policies to govern the decision-making process used to filter which items get added to a backlog. Attention should also be paid to regularly balance the backlog with an appropriate amount of product features, enablement features and technical debt work to optimize ROI and maintain agility as well as high performance. 

 

How do you prioritize the items that do make it to your product backlog? Do you use a specific model or method for categorizing and prioritizing these backlog items? 

Though we vary and adapt prioritization methods based on the context, we always ensure the approach brings objectivity to the decision-making process. 

One method that we frequently use and recommend is to sequence work to optimize economic outcomes. We tend to prefer this method because of three reasons: time is a non-negotiable resource; resources are generally finite or limited, such as budget or people; and third, the primary goal is to deliver the maximum value and quality to customers in the shortest sustainable timeframe.

In practice, we use a formula to calculate the value-to-cost ratio of each item in the backlog relative to the rest. For cost, we use the story point of the feature. For value, we use a combination of the following three elements: assumed financial benefit of the item, timing impact and context.

The key is to determine the value of each item relative to others in the backlog. This approach is very similar to WSJF (weighted shorted job first), but we adapt it based on our context.

 

What other stakeholders do you include in the prioritization process, and how do they help inform decisions around what to prioritize and when?

Our rule of thumb is to always collaborate with three groups of stakeholders: those who are most knowledgeable about the value of the features being prioritized; those who are most versed in the value of enablement features; and those who are closest to the effort of the items.

Each group enables us to determine both the value of a feature as well as its cost. This, in turn, enables us to calculate the value-to-cost ratio for each feature in order to sequence them to optimize economic outcomes.

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