Why your product backlog is a dumpster fire (or, why completeness and correctness are the antithesis to a good backlog)

June 18, 2020


I was inspired to write this post by Brian Norgard’s tweet: “Delete your product backlog every six months. If it’s important, it will emerge again. If not, you’ll save your team the mental anguish of rehashing something that will never see the light of day.”

That message rings true because most of the startup product backlogs that I see are dumpster fires. There are three easy fixes for startups to take back control of their backlog and get real shit done to build extraordinary experiences for customers.

Here’s how I usually see it go down: you, a diligent founder, put every single task you need to get done into your product backlog. Your vision depends upon Big Feature X that might take a month to complete, so that goes to your backlog to be prioritized and, ultimately, completed. But you also had that one user point out that one little bug during onboarding that only shows up the first time they use the product and was worked around with just one extra click, so you added Tiny Bug No One Really Sees Y to your backlog, too. After all, the world might end if you forget to record something.

So everything you need to do is in your product backlog. No exceptions. You are a good product founder, who feels proud to have both correctness and completeness in your product backlog.

Every few weeks, you groom your backlog, just like a diligent founder should do. You make sure each task is still relevant, there are no duplicates, and it’s well prioritized. Since you’re a tiny team, you include everyone in this process. It starts out really fun, because you’re laser focused on what matters and there are significant new learnings each time.

But within the span of a few months, this becomes one of the least productive exercises you do. Nothing is gained from it, because very little new things matter. It mostly just services to repeat the big things you know you want to do but don’t have the time for and the little things you know you’ll never get around to doing, either.

You know you’ve hit this stage when people start dreading the grooming meeting, even if they aren’t telling you. Eyes glaze over. At a certain point, you start saying, “okay, let’s stop there -- we know we’re never getting to anything below this anyway.”

In short, within a span of just a few months as a super diligent product founder, your backlog went from being the place to see your future roadmap -- both complete and correct -- to being a dumpster fire of things that don’t matter that no one wants to look at.

What does a smart product founder like you do, then? Three main things:

First, do what Brian says, and delete your backlog entirely every 6 months. Anything important comes back real quick. Anything that bothers users enough comes back real quick. I promise you will have fewer regrets doing this than you think.

Second, and more importantly in my mind, get it out of your head that your backlog has to be 100% complete and correct. Having everything you need to do or have heard from a user -- regardless of importance and size -- is the fastest way to generate a useless backlog. By default, your backlog does not need to include all the things. Just ensure it includes the things you routinely hear or know you need to do... soon.

As a rule of thumb, if your backlog is >6mo, it’s probably too long. Remember, at this scale, you’re still searching for product/market fit. What you know to be true today is likely not going to be true in 6mo, so trying to account for anything longer is a waste of time, energy, and team morale.

Lastly, follow the rule that a small task should be completed immediately, not added to a list to be done later. If it’ll take <30min, and you and your engineers know how to do it already, don’t add it to your backlog. Instead, take all the time that you would have spent discussing it during grooming repeatedly for the next three months and just do it now. You’ll thank yourself later, and, surprisingly, your product will feel noticeably better as a result.

If you do those three things and don’t worry about perfection, you’ll go faster, you’ll be happier, you’ll do more important work, and your customers will notice. Don’t let your backlog become a dumpster fire.