How important is innovation?

Surely, if you provide good service and a decent product, customers will stick around. Right?

While that may be true in the short-term, you’ll quickly find that customer’s preferences change over time.

Innovation protects your company and its bottom line. It also boosts your ability to react to market changes and competitors. It helps you discover new opportunities and may help you foster a competitive advantage.

A recent survey found that the top drivers for innovation include driving revenue growth (53%), enhancing customer experience (53%), and developing new products and services (45%).

Product development lays the foundation for customer satisfaction and retention. Without innovation, you’ll get left behind, which could take years to recover fully. That’s why having a steady stream of ideas and features is so important.

A product backlog is a must for companies looking to evolve constantly and stay ahead of the competition.

In this article, we’ll explain the ins and outs of product backlogs, including who owns it, how it compares to sprint backlogs, and how you can create your own with monday.com:

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What is a product backlog?

In the context of a product backlog, a product is a vehicle for delivering value to customers. It can be a physical product, but it can also be a service or something less tangible and more abstract.

Product backlogs are a staple of many industries, and they all have their own unique take on how they use them.

In the software industry, the product is the software itself. Unlike most products, software is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its customers. Sometimes it’s changing weekly or bi-weekly.

Software is just one example.

To keep up with continually evolving technology and customer demands, many companies adopt what’s called an Agile workflow. An Agile workflow is an interactive process focused on executing a project in multiple stages, often called sprints, that last 1-4 weeks.

The chief benefit of following an Agile methodology is the ability to quickly adapt your priorities to focus on what’s most important at the time. That’s where the product backlog comes into play.

A product backlog is a list of work prioritized for the development team. It’s a list of what needs to be done to create a new product or enhancing an existing one. It acts as a single source of truth for the entire product team, and gives everyone direction.

The product backlog is a wish list full of ideas while a sprint backlog is more of a to-do list.

Basically, if it’s not on the backlog, it’s likely out of scope and nothing more than a distraction.

It’s also worth noting that not all items in the product backlog should be a priority.

The product backlog is more of a wish list — not a checklist or to-do list that requires completion.

Who owns the product backlog?

The Product Owner owns the product backlog.

The Product Owner acts as the chief stakeholder for the product team and is ultimately responsible for maximizing the product’s value. They keep a close connection with all key stakeholders and the customer, so they have the best possible view of what’s important, what can wait, and what to leave off the product backlog entirely.

Naturally, the Product Owner maintains a birds-eye view over the backlog and ensures its contents are relevant, up to date, and prioritized.

Prioritization boils down to:

  • The items that add the most value to the customer
  • The scope of work that fits into the project’s budget and capacity constraints
  • The potential risks associated with rolling out new features

The product backlog also needs to be crystal clear and void of any ambiguities that could derail the upcoming sprint or entire project.

If the team has a Scrum Master — not all do, monday.com doesn’t — then they’ll likely have a hand in the backlog, but not nearly as intensely as the Product Owner. The Scrum Master’s focus should be on the project itself and not the details of the product.

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Breaking down the contents of the product backlog

The product backlog typically includes, but is not limited to:

  • New features: these are new features that a stakeholder has asked to be added to the product.
  • New feature ideas: not all features are fully flushed out yet. Your team may choose to record new feature ideas that will be assessed and evaluated later.
  • Technical debt: some work is essential to keeping the product maintainable, secure, and up-to-date. This is often referred to as ‘technical debt.’
  • Bugs of all severity and levels: defects and bugs are often found by end-users or support reps and often require a high priority timeline for fixing.
  • Research: while not a feature, research is instrumental to knowing whether concepts or features are possible. Since time has to be dedicated to it, it’s often recorded in the backlog.
  • Feature improvements: existing features require ongoing maintenance and upkeep, especially as the product changes.
  • Design change ideas: not all features are tangible or bring utility to the end-user. Some are purely cosmetic and provide a more modern aesthetic.
  • UX issues: user experience is paramount to creating a product that’s easy to use and is intuitive.
  • Infrastructure changes: the code sometimes needs an overhaul to stay current with the times, and integrations get switched up, and require retooling.
  • User stories: capturing the end user’s wants and needs is important to the sprint’s success. Often these are features written from the user’s point of view to better illustrate the underlying need or want that should be met.
  • Action items from the retrospective: looking back on what worked and what didn’t can result in actions the team wants to implement in order to improve their internal processes and the rest of the project.

What’s the difference between a product backlog and a sprint backlog?

If you’re new to Scrum, then this is probably a burning question. They’re super similar, so it’s easy to get the 2 confused. Ultimately, the difference comes down to timing:

  • A product backlog is a vessel that holds what the team may eventually do. It’s work that’s prioritized but not necessarily tied to a commitment or a particular sprint yet.
  • A sprint backlog is a vessel that holds what the team is doing within a planned sprint. Ideally, the sprint backlog remains static throughout the entire sprint since at this point you’ve committed to delivering these specific features or bug fixes.

As you can see, the product backlog is generally much larger than the sprint backlog because it’s all-encompassing.

You’ll find short-term feature requests, long-term product ideas, and more on the product backlog. It truly is a wishlist because every single idea from every corner of the product’s universe goes on that list.

The sprint backlog derives directly from the product backlog and is full of priority items the have a deadline.

The sprint backlog is much more granular than that because each task was carefully selected and prioritized for the 1–4-week sprint you’re about to undertake.

The sprint backlog comes directly from the product backlog — it can’t exist without it.

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5 steps for creating your own product backlog

Creating a product backlog is far from rocket science, but there are some best practices that’ll make the process easier for everyone involved.

Here are 5 steps that’ll kickstart your product backlog and ensure all your sprints are set up for success:

1. Let the product roadmap guide you.

Before you start thinking about filling up your backlog, you need to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. Reviewing your product strategy is crucial if you want to prioritize the right sprints and individual tasks.

Do that consistently enough, and you’ll find the product backlog is not only easy to maintain but easy to prioritize.

2. Unload your roadmap and your mind.

The product roadmap will help you lay the groundwork for your product backlog, but as you saw above, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Between feature requests, bugs, and maintenance, you’ll likely have a towering list of potential items to tackle.

The best thing you can do is perform a brain dump into the product backlog. Don’t think too much about if it’s the right thing to do. When in doubt, jot it down at this stage. The judgment and prioritization will come later, so don’t get bogged down in the details.

Consider the project journey, high-level features, and major releases your company wants to accomplish this year.

Capture smaller features as well, any known bugs, and various internal and external feature requests. Get ideas from users, frontline employees, engineers, developers, and anyone else that comes to mind.

3. Put everything in its place.

Now that you have a master list, it’s time to organize each backlog item. There are multiple ways to organize your product backlog. Smaller backlog items as stories and big items as epics are one way.

Epics are the overarching body of work that is too large for an individual to complete so they're broken down into user stories that are more actionable.

You can also group work by initiatives and themes. Here’s a quick description of each:

  • Themes are larger focus areas that often span the entire department or organization.
  • Initiatives are comprehensive collections of epics that ultimately drive towards shared goals.
  • Epics are larger bodies of work that will be broken down into multiple smaller tasks (called stories).
  • Stories, AKA “user stories,” are shorter requests or requirements written from the end user’s perspective.

No matter what you decide, it should be consistent throughout your backlog.

4. Start the prioritization process.

You’ve got a master list of “could do” tasks, and there’s a method to the madness now that you’ve agreed upon a means of organization.

Now it’s time to perform your first backlog grooming session to add detail and prioritize the backlog items.

The top of the backlog is where the high-priority items go. That way, they’re front and center and don’t require any digging when planning your next sprint. The level of detail for each item will often decrease the further down the list you go.

Factors that influence prioritization include customer expectations, development effort, feature complexity, the overall reach of the features, and potential changes to the product roadmap.

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5. Schedule your backlog review.

It’s not enough to prioritize your backlog once. The product backlog is a living, breathing vehicle that requires constant maintenance and upkeep. Otherwise, the tasks grow stale, lack depth, and likely lack any real prioritization.

Call the review what you want, but they’re most commonly referred to as “backlog grooming” or “backlog refinement” within the Agile methodology.

As a cross-functional team, it’s imperative that during this regular grooming process, you carefully review items through the lens of “what adds the most value to the customer?”

Managing your product backlog with monday.com

Keeping up with a Scrum product backlog is potentially cumbersome or time-consuming if you don’t have the right set of tools.

Thankfully, monday.com makes it dead simple to not only set up your first product backlog but to keep it up to par at all times.

Most teams will have a handful of boards to keep the entire process glued together.

For starters, a product board will act as more of an overview for each product line and may even include relevant financial information and user information like revenue, active users, product lifecycle, and more.

Next up, you’ll likely have your product roadmap for each product, showing your overall product improvement goals, and high-level timeline for your project.

You’re also going to need the ever-important product backlog (as shown below).

monday.com's feature backlog template makes it simple to start a product backlog in a matter of minutes.

It may have sections for priority items and others for new ideas that help draw focus to what matters most.

The columns will vary, but most will include owners, status, impact, effort, and impact area. If you want, you can even add epic descriptions, a timeline, and voting functionality.

And finally, you’ll have your sprint backlog board for planning out your next sprint.

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monday.com works hard at making complex tasks feel easier, and our Work OS is the perfect platform for creating your product backlog.

We believe you should spend less time conforming to your software’s limitations and instead bend software to fit your unique needs. That way, your eyes are on the prize and not the tools you use every day.

If you’re ready to dive right into making your own, then let us give you a leg up with our Feature Backlog Template. It may be the best thing you do all day.

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