Refine your refinements

Most people that have engaged in backlog refinements have probably been there; long refinement meetings where you might have felt that you were only needed for half of it. Where the items turned out okay but not great. Where there was already a solution on the table when you entered the room, and where you thought to yourself that there must be a way to make this more efficient.

This led me to design and try out a new backlog refinement format, which resulted in our team spending less time on refinements, with fewer people involved in each item that was refined, and with better results.

What are some problems that might occur while doing a standardized backlog refinement?

  • It might be hard to succeed with true collaboration when there are a lot of people involved.
  • If you are working in a large team, there is a risk of backlog refinement meetings being very time-consuming, since there probably is a lot to refine.
  • Some people might only be needed for certain backlog items, and sometimes, they might even not be needed at all. So why should everyone be required in every backlog refinement meeting?
  • If you want a team to be empowered, the goal should be to encourage the team to solve problems in the best way they see fit. They should then be held accountable for the results. It is easier for team members to feel responsible for the end result if there are fewer people involved in solving the problem.
  • Some people might find it challenging to express their ideas or concerns in front of the whole team, especially if the rest of the team seems to be in agreement.
  • It can be challenging to come up with good solutions on the spot without doing some proper research beforehand.

So, how do you tackle these problems, and make your refinements more efficient?

Instead of refining every backlog item together in a big refinement meeting, give people time to think and do research about the subject in advance, and then start to refine backlog items in smaller groups!

Lightbulb momemt
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

While some might believe that you need to have the whole team present during refinements in order to reach a consensus about a solution, I would argue that collaboration is not about consensus. Collaboration in the refinement process should be about working with other people to share ideas, perspectives, and knowledge to come up with the most valuable solution together. This does not necessarily mean that the whole team needs to be involved or in consensus. The team members that take on refining a backlog item should be trusted to be able to make good decisions without involving each member of the team in the process. However, the rest of the team should be able to give input while being briefed about the decisions.

Get started with the new backlog refinement format

Create a backlog refinement board
I find that it is easier to structure the refinement process if there is a dedicated board for items that are either going to be refined, are in the refinement process or are ready for a sprint. This board could be either physical or digital. A kanban board that accomplishes this result could look something like this:

Refinement board

Remaster your backlog refinement meeting
Instead of a long backlog refinement meeting, create a recurring appointment that is approximately 30 minutes long (depending on the size of the team). The purpose of this meeting should be to look at the refinement board together. If some items need to be refined, you simply move the items to the ongoing refinement column. Then you assign someone responsible for this item to be refined. This does not necessarily mean that this person should refine it, but that the person is responsible for setting up a new appointment with the people that are needed for it to be refined, and that makes sure that it gets done.

If there are items that have been refined during the week, the people that refined it should briefly summarise the refinement and make sure that the whole team understands what the solution proposal is. After this, if the team agrees, you can simply move the item to the refined column, and it is now ready to be planned into a sprint.

Team foundations to succeed with implementing this refinement strategy

  • Have a shared product and team mission. If everyone in the team has the same understanding of the team’s and product’s mission, it becomes much easier to make good decisions.
  • Change the perception of the backlog refinement. Instead of it being a long meeting every single week, it should be an ongoing process throughout the whole sprint, which is owned by the team. The goal of which should be to solve problems together.
  • Your team must establish a definition of ready. In short, the definition of ready should define the criteria that a specific user story has to meet before being considered for estimation or inclusion into a sprint. This is a requirement if people in the team are going to refine on their own.
  • Believe in the team. To cultivate a strong team, they should be given problems to solve in a cross-functional manner rather than semi-finished solutions to build upon. Trust their skills in their respective discipline and their ability to make good decisions.

Summary

This is a format that has worked great for our team. Nothing about it is set in stone. Try it out as is or modify it however your team prefers. The goal of the format is to provide the right prerequisites for the team to collaborate efficiently and solve problems in the best way they see fit. It should create a better foundation for the team members to feel responsible for the solutions, and as a result, take accountability for the value delivered. If you want an empowered team, I think this refinement format could be a step in the right direction.

Robin

Robin Köhn
Scrum Master at Visiba Care

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