March 30, 2022
There’s an opportunity I’ve seen with many Scrum teams I’ve worked with – the opportunity to take a wider, more expansive view during Product Backlog Refinement (PBR).
The scenes are familiar: teams focusing on one Product Backlog Item (PBI) at a time, building up just enough knowledge about the PBI to estimate its size, estimating the PBI, then moving to the next one – all in a rather rote, mechanical way.
Sometimes this scene is accompanied by otherwise good behavior – like focusing on the top of the Product Backlog and working down, making sure the team has the most knowledge about the work that is most imminent, going after what I call “just in time understanding.” But there’s still a certain je ne sais quoi missing related to bigger picture concerns and longer-term strategy.
I recently spoke to a security expert who was concerned about his professed “inability for Scrum to handle far-reaching, strategic, cross-cutting concerns like application threat modeling and security.” Not coincidentally, when asked he described the Product Backlog Refinement sessions he was involved in as above – item by item, tactically focused, and little room for conversation outside of getting enough information to estimate the item.
I’ve also spoken to many an architect, UX designer, and technical writer who profess similar concerns. The long-term view of their craft – overarching architectural principles, cohesive visual design, consistent voice in text – seems to be slipping through the cracks.
Initially, I was confused, to the point of being almost dismissive: “That’s what Product Backlog Refinement is for.” While that’s true, it’s not very helpful for a practitioner who’s never seen or used refinement as anything other than the tactically focused process described above.
I’d like to provide some solutions and real-world examples to help you use Product Backlog Refinement to solve the sort of problems with long-term, strategic concerns described above. Everything I’ll describe follows my mantra, “Take a more expansive view of what Product Backlog Refinement can be.”
Here are some simple things you can start doing today to help your Product Backlog Refinement sessions become more strategically focused:
With techniques like these (and others you discover yourself), I hope your teams develop an instinctual response to the perennial “Scrum doesn’t have a way to handle [x]!!” claims – with the simple but effective, “sounds like a great topic for our next Product Backlog Refinement session – let’s figure it out then!”
 Product Backlog Refinement was formerly called Grooming or Product Backlog Grooming – all these terms are synonyms