The life-changing magic of tidying up your product backlog

Have you ever had to deal with a product backlog that was cluttered and out of control? Those times where there’s no whitespace left on the board and the notes and system cards hang precariously from the edges, running in one long, connected line straight to the floor? To make it worse, there may be a product owner who believes that every single item is of top importance and that nothing can be deprioritised. I’ve definitely been there, more than once.

In these circumstances it may feel like there is no way to deal with the mess. Actually, it’s a bit like when your home is starting to feel cluttered and you just know it’s time for a major spring clean. We know there are straight-forward ways to clean up at home. And it turns out that the same approach you use to declutter your home can also be applied to maintain a tidy — and healthy — product backlog.

Japanese tidying consultant Marie Kondo devised a tidying method called “KonMari” in her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.  It is not only a great way to get a messy household under control but can also be easily adapted to help get your cluttered backlog into tip-top shape.


Before you start tidying up your bloated backlog

Work with your product owner to help them make a commitment to tidying up the mess. Once that real commitment has been made and they have made a decision to let go of the past, your team can move forward and change their work (and life!) for the better.

The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.

Imagine the future. Before diving into decluttering it’s important to have considered what you want the end product to look like and also how the upcoming work should be organised. Try not to jump straight to tidying as you need to first think about the structure of the backlog and what things should be emphasised.


The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.


Finish discarding first. Don’t keep obsolete stories at the bottom of your backlog ‘just in case’ you get to them one day in the very distant future. And definitely don’t try to hide work you know won’t ever happen in JIRA instead of closing or deleting them. If you already know you don’t need it, or that it is unlikely to ever be delivered, get rid of it.


Once you start tidying up the backlog

Tidy by category, not by location. You may be in a situation where some “current” product backlog items are being kept on a physical wall, some “future” items in a tool like JIRA, and other things like defects or customer feedback in an excel spreadsheet. In this scenario organising tends to be done one mini-backlog location at a time. Of course, the full backlog usually remains a mess at the end. Another approach is to tidy the backlog from highest priority to lowest priority. This also doesn’t work, usually because you have entered the tidying process in a mindset of “keep this” by starting with something you have already decided is highest priority. Instead, the most effective and correct way to tidy up is by category. For example, group all the technical debt together and sort through it in one go.


Selecting and discarding one’s possessions is a continuous process of making decisions based on one’s own values.


Does it spark joy? The goal of tidying shouldn’t be to get rid of things. It’s not about minimalism, it’s about mindfulness. As a Product Owner do you feel joy for this backlog item? Do you really want to bring this work with you into the future? If you can’t imagine a feature in your final delivered product, or you can’t see how a customer is going to care about it, then it’s time to discard it from your backlog.


Follow the right order when you are decluttering your backlog. The important thing is to tidy the easiest stuff first and leave the things that will be a bit harder to let go of until the end. Examples of something “easy” to tidy could be pre-existing Production Defects or Customer requests more than a year old, as you might be less attached to those. Leave the great new innovative feature ideas to the end of your tidying as you are probably more emotionally invested in those.


In summary


“When you tidy, you gain a little confidence. You start to believe in the future. Things begin to go more smoothly. The people you meet change. Unexpected things happen in a positive way. Change begins to accelerate. And you begin to really enjoy your life.”


The KonMari tidying method is a great way to get an out-of-control backlog back in order. So long as you maintain your commitment to keeping the backlog clean, stay attuned to what will bring ‘joy’ for your customers, and follow this method every day you should be able to reduce the stress of having a messy backlog – all year round! So why not give it a try?


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