Product Backlog: Now, Next, Later
If your product development is going according to the plan, you are missing out on opportunities that are accessible now but were not apparent earlier.
It is essential to have a long-term Product Goal. The Product Goal gives a direction for the planning of product development. But plans don’t often hold up the test of time. If your product development is going according to the plan, you are missing out on opportunities that are accessible now but were not apparent earlier. You may be progressing full speed ahead in the wrong direction.
Agile product development is about inspection and adaptation. The agile way is to focus on the here and the now with an eye for emerging opportunities. Therefore, in the Scrum framework, the Product Backlog is changeable. The items in the Product Backlog and the ordering of the product backlog are always adaptable to shifts in the business context.
All too often, novice Product Owners think of the Product Backlog as a fixed list of “requirements” or, worst cases, “orders” from stakeholders. They then spend much time detailing all aspects of the product features because “Everything is important.” If you ask stakeholders, they see value in their requests, but that does not mean that every item is equally valuable.
I recommend that Product Owners sort their backlog items into three categories: Now, Next, and Later. Here is how to use these categories:
First, understand your team’s throughput. Start by reviewing the Cumulative Flow Diagram for your team or the historic velocity trends. Based on your team data, identify the range (minimum and median) for the number of Product Backlog Items your team can complete in the next two to three iterations. Say, for example, the range is between 8 – 12 items.
Of all the items the team could work on, what 8-12 items are most valuable or necessary to be done in the next month or two? These are the items to be done NOW.
Items likely to be worked on a month to 3 months from are Next. As the Product Owner, you have time to refine these items with stakeholders, so you can learn what problem they are trying to solve and collaborate on product solutions that deliver desired outcomes for your customers. It is a continuous refinement process. So set aside some time for regular refinement with your team and stakeholders.
As items get refined and are ready for development, promote items from the Next to Now. Do not overload beyond your empirical throughput. Everything else that does not belong in the Now or Next is for Later.
This simple approach works well with stakeholders because they can see how their items stack in priority compared in value to other items and how you plan to engage with them before the team can start working on their problem statement.